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The Meaning of Hugo Chávez
To the sputtering fury of a Bush administration who has repeatedly conspired with Venezuela’s elite to drive Hugo Chavez from power, the Black Indian President of this oil-rich nation has scored a decisive 59% victory over a recall effort. Chavez now sits more comfortably than ever atop a fourth of the world oil supplies — equal to that of Iraq — and he supplies a fifth of US oil needs. In addition, he is current leader of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. George W. Bush would prefer his friends in Saudi Arabia rather than Chavez set global oil prices. US attacks on Chavez caricature him as a tyrant in the class of Saddam Hussein, or a Marxist, or a ferociously anti-American clone of Castro. Actually, his populist uprising springs from multicultural grass roots that pre-date the foreign invasion of the Americas that began in 1492.
Like four-fifths of Venezuelans, Chavez was born of poor Black and Indian parents. Since the days of Columbus descendants of the Spanish conquistadores have supplied the governing classes of the Americas, and have denied indiginous people a say in their future. Chavez represents a strong challenge.
Chavez is not only proud of his biracial legacy, but has begun to use oil revenues to help the poor of all colors improve their education and economic standing. He also flatly rejects Bush administration efforts to isolate Cuba, counts Castro a friend, and has repeatedly accused the US of meddling in his country and around the world.
Chavez rules a country where three percent of the population, mostly of white European descent, own 77% of the land. In recent decades millions of hungry peasants have drifted into Caracas and other cities, and live in barrios of cardboard shacks and open sewers. Chavez has begun to transfer fields from giant unused or abandoned haciendas to peasant hands, and as landlords have responded with howls of alarm, he has promised further distributions.
But he has repeatedly held out an olive branch to his foes. He recently stated, "All this stuff about Chavez and his hordes coming to sweep away the rich, it’s a lie. We have no plan to hurt you. All your rights are guaranteed, you who have large properties or luxury farms or cars."
Chavez has begun to target the foreign oil giants who keep about 84% of Venezuela’s oil profits. To attack the problems of his people in health, illiteracy and poverty, he has demanded 30%.
In 1998 and 2000 Chavez won the Presidency by majorities Republicans and Democrats here can only dream about. In 2002 he defeated a two-day coup attempt engineered by his local elite in alliance with US interests, and in the recent recall vote, 90% of voters turned out. Chavez’s strength rests with his poorest citizens who have mobilized behind a broader agenda than his, one which includes participatory democracy and elevating the status of women.
Using rising oil revenues, Chavez has brought education to almost a million children who never sat in a classroom. And with 10,000 Cuban doctors, a gift from Fidel Castro, he has opened 11,000 medical clinics primarily in barrios.
Over the centuries South Americans have endured a crop of caudillos, or military dictators. Many who began office sounding a radical note were overthrown by the CIA or other instruments of foreign governments. Others remained in power by listening to American ambassadors. Though it is too early to tell, this former paratrooper seems to spring from an earlier age when Africans and Indians united to fight the first European invaders, and then continued the struggle for self-determination by political means.
For inspiration Chavez can reach back to the misty dawn of the foreign landings when heroic Black Indian ancestors first rose to battle colonialism. In 1819 Simon Bolivar, of African and Indian lineage and the victorious revolutionary leader of South America, became the first elected President of Venezuela. Vicente Guerrero, a guerilla General in the Mexican Revolution helped liberate his country from Spain. Though the ruling elite denounced him as a "triple-blooded outsider," in 1829 he became Mexico’s first Black Indian President, wrote its constitution, emancipated its slaves, ended racial discrimination and banished the death penalty.
Though his white foes also denounce Chavez as a racial outsider, the faces of his millions of supporters refute the claim. He continues to triumph at the polls, speak truth to power, and use oil revenues to meet his peoples’ needs. He appears unconcerned that he has excited the fury of the giant to the north, and at time seems to relish this role.
Time will tell if Chavez’s programs and supporters can protect him from the machinations of his US enemies allied with his foes at home. Venezuelians have begun their own cultural revolution, and though it undergirds Chavez’s political and economic advances, it may take some different directions.
Hugo Chavez and his people may yet write another chapter in the audacious book begun by Simon Bolivar, Vicente Guerrero and millions of other Venezuelian Africans and Indians.
WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author forty books, and he adapted this essay from his new book, THE CRUEL YEARS: AMERICAN VOICES AT THE DAWN OF THE 20TH CENTURY [Beacon Press, 2003], from which this essay is adapted. His website is: williamlkatz.com