With some notable and praiseworthy exceptions, the English speaking western media’s response to the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been little more than hysterical, hypocritical propaganda. For these states, with their increasingly questionable claims on democracy, justice and suffrage, to herald the end of a Chavez as the ‘death of a dictator’ is almost breathtaking in its doublespeak.
First the Hysteria
Firstly, let’s look at some examples of the hyperbole put forward in the TV, Print and Radio media in the twenty four hours since Chavez breathed his last breath.
The Dallas Morning Herald, in its editorial ‘Death of Venezuela Dictator Hugo Chavez’, writes:
“During his 14 years as president, Chávez fooled Venezuelans into believing he would improve their lives and strengthen their democratic powers. In reality, he accomplished exactly the opposite…Chávez squandered his nation’s vast oil wealth on socialist gimmickry.”
The Daily Beast (the online offspring of Newsweek) in an article lovingly entitled ‘Hugo Chavez Dead at 58: Good Riddance!” writes:
“The fatherland is a shambles, Bolivarian socialism has failed, and Comandante Chávez is dead.”
Fox News carried a response to former President Jimmy Carter’s expression of sympathy to the Chavez family on the death of their patriarch, from the Republican National Committee spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi:
“Americans should stand together with the freedom loving people of Venezuela as they hope for a peaceful transition to a democracy, instead of praising the former dictator.”
Forbes Magazine, in its piece ‘Hugo Chavez leaves the Soft Dictator’s Oil Curse as Legacy’ writes:
“Chavez relied on the oil revenues of PDVSA as a cash cow to fund social development projects, food subsidies, and housing projects for his base.” (Like it was a bad thing; how dare you ‘blow’ all that profit on people, homes and food? You barbarian!)
The BBC’s rolling news and flagship Radio 4 Today Programme repeatedly refer to Chavez as a flamboyant and divisive charismatic leader (short hand for dictator).
Then the Hypocrisy
It cannot go without saying, that the allegations against are also the height of hypocrisy.
The US criticizes Chavez for attempting a coup of an elected president in 1992.
This from the government that backed the 1973 military coup in Chile. This coup saw brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet overthrow and kill democratically elected Salvador Allende. The US interest? Allende was set to reverse the round of neoliberal privatisations, including telecommunications company ITT by renationalising the services. The US also attempted a coup of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1961, by landing 1,400 armed anti-Castro exiles in Southern Cuba’s Playa Girone (Bay of Pigs) and launching some air strikes on strategic targets to set things off. However, Castro’s side were well armed and prepared for the attack and repelled it entirely in a matter of days, while the White House looked on in silence and inaction. In the 1983 Reagan led invasion of Grenada, the US launched a full 7,000 troop attack, by air, land and sea on the Caribbean island nation of 110,000 inhabitants to intervene in stop an internal overthrow of a neoliberal regime by one promising renationalisation and a break with neoliberal policies. Hundreds of Grenadians died and the US marines arrested thousands of Cuban and Soviet nationals.
Guyana’s Stabroek News described it as “one of the most egregious examples of asymmetrical warfare in modern times, the United States of America, the world’s most powerful state, invaded Grenada, one of the world’s weakest mini-states.” The US has no issue in coordinating and supporting coups in Latin America and beyond, so long as they are guaranteed a friendly face to deal with regardless of the outcomes of the national population.
The US media critics also attack Chavez for holding unfair elections, suggesting votes are rigged and voter groups are disenfranchised. Yet, the US has a ghetto school to prison pipeline which disenfranchises non white US citizens. The US uses its prison system to punish the poor, most of which are black or Hispanic. In the US, 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in his lifetime. The US also operates felony disenfranchisement in some states, which means you cannot vote if you have a criminal record. Ever. In the last presidential election, this saw 5.8m Americans (mainly poor, mainly Black and Hispanic) unable to cast a vote.
Media critics attack Chavez for authoritarianism and using the state apparatus to imprison several opponents, some of whom launched a coup against him in 2002. Meanwhile, whistleblower Bradley Manning has spent over 1000 days in jail without trial and faces the death penalty for releasing documentary evidence of war crimes by the US military. Activist Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide after the US government sought a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for the crime of downloading academic papers in a bid to release them to the public for free, from a paid online journal service. The UK government, keen to hide its complicity in torture and rendition, frustrated in doing so by the High Court, this week voted through legislation for secret courts in the British Justice system. Henceforth, any citizen attempting to sue the British government for torture, rendition, dodgy arms sales deals, or soldiers claiming mistreatment will no longer enjoy open justice. All media will be barred, the state can share evidence and make its case to the judge without the plaintiff in the room or being informed of the content of the evidence/arguments, and the UK’s citizens will not know the court cases have happened or what their results are.
Finally, critics argue that Chavez’s economic policy has destroyed the country, and he operated a system of patronage which benefitted a narrow slice of the population.
But the neoliberal practices of the US and the UK have crashed the global economy. With the rise of neoliberalism in last 30 years, the US worker has seen their wages plummet to the real terms wages of 1966.
In terms of income and wealth inequality, Robert Reich, a U.S. labour secretary under Bill Clinton, had this to say :
“Income inequality, and wealth inequality even more so, are worse in the United States since the 1920s, and by some measures since the 1890s. Most of the economic gains in the past 25 years have gone to the top 15-20 percent of Americans, but more recently, in the past six to seven years, most of the economic gains have gone to the top one percent. . . . the average CEO is making about 380 times more than the average worker – a huge gap relative to what it used to be 40 years ago – it was about 30 times.”
If any nation has an issue with allowing the purchase of political power and the issuing of patronage to a narrow slice of its population, the US government points at the splinter in Chavez’s eye, whilst ignoring the plank in its own.
Reality? Imperfect but Inspirational
The judgement of political leaders cannot always be made in absolutes, but the context in which they exist and their place in the sweep of their nations history. In this light, Chavez can be viewed as imperfect by the standards of pure democracy, but an inspirational and transformative character in the history of Venezuela, and the world.
Prior to Chavez, Venezuela was beset by notionally democratic parties, both of which implemented crushing shock doctrine neoliberalist policies on the country. In 1989, President Carlos Andres Perez won the election on a platform to reject the IMF policies of removing subsidies, selling off national services and cutting public spending. The platform has been hugely popular given the crushing poverty and exclusion from basic services like sanitation and clean water, let alone education and health.
However, on winning the election he announced he had no choice but to adopt the same policies he had described as “a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing”.
The poorest Venezuelans woke up one morning in February to find that Perez had dropped the neutron bomb himself. His new plan, labelled as ‘el gran viraje’ or ‘the great turnaround’ was a disaster for the majority of Venezuela. In a city such as Caracas, the unemployment rate was around fifty percent at all times, and the effects of neoliberal structural adjustment were devastating. As Charles Hardy (a priest living in one of Caracas’s barrios at the time) notes, the price of bread had gone up six times overnight. The bus fare, the mode of transportation so many depended on to get to and from their barrios to work as much as they could went up 30% due to an increase in petrol prices. People could not afford to get to work, or to get to the shops, and even if they could, food was unaffordable.
The people of Caracas, outraged at this ‘bait and switch’ politics took to the streets in protest. The collective rage of crushing poverty and hopelessness was demonstrated by the burning of buses which they could no longer afford to ride, and the looting of food and other items from stores which they could no longer afford to buy. In response, Perez called in the military that proceeded as a death squad, firing upon anything that moved and killing up to 3,000 people. Mass graves dotted the landscape, but the state continued to acknowledge only 276 deaths and labelled these murdered citizens ‘terrorists’. This approach continued for the rest of the Perez presidency as he used brutal military force to suppress the protest of a population plunged into unimaginable poverty by these US/IMF policies. One in three Venezuelans were living on less than $2 a day, not seen in the country since the 1960’s.
Neoliberalism to Latin America was littered with abuses like this. Enter Hugo Chavez, who after an unsuccessful attempt to remove Perez by coup in 1992 and a two year stint in jail, become president by a landslide majority in the election of 1998. He ran on a Bolivar Socialist platform to renationalise the privatised services, use oil revenues to reinvest in the public services and social security of Venezuela and assorted other plans to reverse neoliberal policies of the previous decades. Owen Jones outlines the successes of the Chavez approach:
“Poverty has fallen from nearly half to 27.8 per cent, while absolute poverty has been more than halved. Six million children receive free meals a day; near-universal free health care has been established; and education spending has doubled as a proportion of GDP. A housing programme launched in 2011 built over 350,000 homes, bringing hundreds of thousands of families out of sub-standard housing in the barrios. Some of his smug foreign critics suggest Chavez effectively bought the votes of the poor – as though winning elections by delivering social justice is somehow bribery.”
Chavez won 17 open elections and referenda during his 14 years at the top of Venezuelan politics. Despite the repeated calls from western leaders that Chavez was somehow rigging these elections; former President Jimmy Carter who led an international assessment team in the 2012 elections said “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
Chavez has also succeeded in creating powerful alliances with other Latin American leaders and isolating the US in the Americas. This has been no mean feat and given the ubiquitous nature of neoliberalism, can only be dreamed of by most other regions of the world. Could you even imagine a series of EU states lining up with socialist policies and freezing the US out of their trade and policy negotiations?
It is perhaps for this reason that despite the cool and carefully worded US response to his death, Chavez received touching tributes from the leaders of the Latin American nations.
Press freedom was a question, and eleven political prisoners were behind bars (most of whom had engaged in a coup against him in 2002). These are issues that anyone can see and take issues with. However, any issues that existed in Chavismo Venezuela certainly exist, and in greater degree, in the so called liberal democracies condemning him.
Only a neo liberal zealot or a democratic purist without a sense of context could deny the presidency of Chavez was a source of great inspiration to a world seeking breathing space from the overbearing hegemony of neoliberalism. He proved that it is possible to take on the US and all its structural power, and win. The world stage will be a duller place without him.