If you want a succinct summary as to why Hugo Chavez matters, even after his death earlier this week then look no further than the words of Channel 4’s iconic newsman Jon Snow,
When I started working in South America the US was still killing leaders it didn’t like. Chavez is part of the order that put an end to that.
As the nearest thing current British journalism has to an Edward Murrow figure one can hardly go wrong in trusting Snow’s hundred and forty character wisdom. Chavez was a leader who brought stability and development to his country over a fourteen year rule that, while by no means perfect, was very much revolutionary.
When Chavez was elected in 1998 one would have been forgiven for thinking that history was about to repeat itself. The bloody days of the 1970s and 80s when the CIA was South America’s devil, toppling socialist governments in Nicaragua and Chile and siding with the likes of Somoza and Pinochet cannot have been far from the minds of many commentators. The US had, on the back of the millions pumped into counter-revolutionary movements by the Regan White House, won in South America. Very few could have predicted that Chavez’s victory would, in the worlds of Gregory Wilpert, lead to ‘a wave of successes for left-leaning presidential candidates in Latin America’.
Venezuela under Chavez was able to stand up to America largely because of a change in the political landscape. The Cold War had been over for nearly a decade, the CIA was no longer a cloaked figure waiting to strike against leftist movements and American foreign policy now looked, in general, to the Balkans and the Middle-East. Chavez had the time and space to act without an American funded Contra movement breathing down his government’s collective necks. There was also a legitimacy in the eyes of the West to the Chavez government, which had won over 50% of the vote in elections that were almost certainly balanced against a socialist candidate. There had been no violent coup or long Sandinista struggle but an ‘orderly transition of power’.
Of course, as the case of Francois Hollande in France has shown, it takes more than the election of a single socialist leader to change the political landscape of a continent. It was what Chavez did to Venezuela during his rule that allowed for the ‘wave of successes’ for the left. Between 1999 and 2009 unemployment fell from 14.5% to 7.6%. From ’99 to 2011 GDP per capita rose from $4,105 to $10,810, infant mortality fell from 20 per 1,000 live births to 13, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty decreased from 23.4% to 8.5% and oil exports increased by over 200%. All of this was done by a government that was staunchly opposed to the intervention of foreign powers, be they governmental or corporate, in the affairs of Venezuela (and indeed South America as a whole). Most famously Chavez effectively nationalised the oil industry and ensured that the majority of the profits made from hydrocarbon exploration in Venezuela stayed in Venezuela.
The changes brought above over the last fourteen years aren’t just measured in percentages. The continued and increased funding of the El Sistema program which aims to bring music to the most impoverished young Venezuelans is just one cultural program that must also be considered as part of Chavez’s legacy. Critics may scoff at the idea of youth orchestras being as important as the increasing of GDP or reduction of inflation but anyone privileged enough to have watched the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Venezuela and perhaps the world’s best ensemble of young musicians, can pour scorn on such a suggestion. El Sistema is as ambitious a cultural program as the attempts by the FSLN to spread poetry in 1980s Nicaragua and as tool to create both great art and help young people avoid crime puts many British projects of similar goals to shame.
But what now for Venezuela? Already some commentators suggest the crows may be gathering, with talk of US oil companies interested in forcing their way into the Venezuelan market and the view that without the gargantuan personality of Chavez at its head Venezuela might crumble. There is also the prospect of change for the better. One cannot ignore Chavez’s failures, he often acted more like a dictator than an elected President and there is no denying that for all the progress Venezuela made with his hands clenched firmly upon the Presidency the country is no socialist nirvana. A new leader with a new approach may, despite the uncertain circumstances, be the catalyst for more positive social change.
However one thing the Chavez should have taught us is that to try and predict what will happen next in South American politics is a risky game at the best of times. To forecast what Venezuela will look like in a year or even six months from now is next to impossible. What is certain however is that the country will never again be the same as in late 1998 when Venezuelans went to the polls to elected Hugo Chavez as their president.