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Bertrand Russell once wrote about the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated.”
This was certainly true of Hugo Chávez Frias, who was probably more demonized than any democratically elected president in world history. But he was repeatedly re-elected by wide margins, and will be mourned not only by Venezuelans but by many Latin Americans who appreciate what he did for the region.
Chávez survived a military coup backed by Washington and oil strikes that crippled the economy but once he got control of the oil industry, his government reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled. He kept his campaign promise to share the country’s oil wealth with Venezuela’s majority, and that will be part of his legacy.
So, too will be the second independence of Latin America, and especially South America, which is now more independent of the United States than Europe is. Of course this would not have happened without Chávez’ close friends and allies: Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and others. But Chávez was the first of the democratically-elected left presidents in the past 15 years, and he played a very important role; look to what these colleagues will say of him and you will find it to be much more important than most of the other obituaries, anti-obituaries, and commentaries. These left governments have also made considerable advances in reducing poverty, increasing employment, and raising overall living standards – and their parties, too have been continually re-elected.
For these other democratic leaders, Chávez is seen as part of this continent-wide revolt at the ballot box that transformed South America and increased opportunities and political participation for previously excluded majorities and minorities.
Continuity in Venezuela is most likely following Chávez’ death, since his political party has more than 7 million members and demonstrated its ability to win elections without him campaigning in the December local elections, where they picked up five state governorships to win 20 of 23 states. Relations with the United States are unlikely to improve; the State Department and President Obama himself made a number of hostile statements during Chávez’s last months of illness, indicating that no matter what the next government (presumably under Nicolas Maduro) does, there is not much interest on Washington’s part in improving relations.
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera.