One of the many things that Hugo Chavez, the charismatic and revolutionary president of Venezuela, contributed to the world was his demonstration for people everywhere the difference between democracy and liberal democracy. Chavez’s hyperbolic style, his tweaking the tail of the Imperial tiger and his willingness to be just as ruthless as his U.S.-backed opponents, gave Western leaders and journalists lots of ammunition to demonize him.
But what really made them all crazy was precisely the fact that he took liberal democracy — the term applied to a political system designed to manage capitalism in the interests of the wealthy and corporations — and turned it into genuine democracy. It highlighted for those struggling for social justice that liberal democracy is an oxymoron — liberalism being the principle that capitalism (inequality) rules and democracy being its opposite: equality. As witnessed by the outrageous levels of inequality now characterizing Canada, you can have one or the other but not both.
Nothing threatens leaders of the Western powers, especially the U.S., like good examples of real democracy and they will do anything to destroy them, demonize them or threaten any other country that dares think about emulating them. No example is too small to destroy, as was witnessed by the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada (population 110,000). The strategy was called “destroy the dream” — which explains, perhaps, why U.S. troops totally destroyed a rural, all-women jam-making co-operative. In the 1980s it wasNicaragua. There they forced the Sandinista government to change its system of electoral democracy from a constituent assembly (made up of elected representatives from all sectors of society) to a multi-party system that the elites could control. The result: the Sandinistas lost.
The U.S. and its imperial junior partners like Canada have always had some excuse, however transparent, to crush good examples in the past. But Chavez shamed them at their own game, winning more democratic elections than any Western leader in the past century. Since coming to power in 1999, he won 15 of 16 elections and referenda, defeating his opponents by a margin of 10-20 percentage points, landslides by our own standards. And he did it through elections that were determined by Western observer groups to be perhaps the most fair on the planet. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, representing one of the most respected observer groups, claimed that Venezuela’s electoral system was “the best in the world.”
None of this matters to politicians dedicated to global corporate dominance. Henry Kissinger’s infamous justification of U.S. support of the fascist coup in Chile was brutal and unapologetic: “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.” It is only the most chilling expression of capitalist elite’s contempt for any democracy that takes equality seriously.
Stephen Harper has an identical mentality. As a result of Chavez’s death, said Harper, “… I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” This would be laughable if weren’t sinister. Harper no doubt knows all about the incredible social progress achieved under Chavez’s government. But for Harper, democracy is clearly not about the substance of what it delivers. When he talks about freedom it is freedom of the wealthy to do as they please; and the rule of law means the laws that protect corporate privileges. As for democracy, it is risible that Harper has the gall to even utter the word given his record.
Just what did Chavez accomplish in his 14 years in power? There are far too many examples to list here, but according to Latin American researcher and journalist Salim Lamrani in 50 Truths about Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, here are some of the more notable.
“In December 2005, UNESCO said that Venezuela had eradicated illiteracy.
“The number of children attending school increased from 6 million in 1998 to 13 million in 2011 and the enrolment rate is now 93.2 per cent.
“The rate of secondary school enrolment rose from 53.6 per cent in 2000 to 73.3 per cent in 2011; the number of tertiary students increased from 895,000 in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2011, assisted by the creation of new universities.
“Between 2005 and 2012, 7,873 new medical centers were created in Venezuela. The number of doctors increased from 20 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 80 per 100,000 in 2010.
“Infant mortality rate fell from 19.1 per thousand in 1999 to 10 per thousand in 2012, a reduction of 49 per cent.
“From 1999 to 2011, the poverty rate decreased from 42.8 per cent to 26.5 per cent and the rate of extreme poverty fell from 16.6 per cent in 1999 to 7 per cent in 2011.
“In the rankings of the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Program for Development (UNDP), Venezuelajumped from 83 in 2000 to 73 in 2011, and entered into the category of Nations with ‘High HDI’.
“Since 1999, 700,000 homes have been built in Venezuela.
“Since 1999, the government provided / returned more than one million hectares of land to Aboriginal people. Land reform enabled tens of thousands of farmers to own their land. In total, Venezuela distributed more than 3 million hectares.
“Five million children now receive free meals through the School Feeding Programme. The figure was 250,000 in 1999. The malnutrition rate fell from 21 per cent in 1998 to less than 3 per cent in 2012.
“The unemployment rate fell from 15.2 per cent in 1998 to 6.4 per cent in 2012, with the creation of more than 4 million jobs.”
As for that core meaning of democracy — equality — according to the UNDP “… Venezuela is the country in the region with the least inequality.” Equality apparently matters as, according to the 2012 World Happiness Report put out by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Venezuela is the second happiest country in Latin America, after Costa Rica, and the nineteenth in the world beating out Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Spain.
Harper and other Western leaders’ reaction to Chavez and his legacy is an important revelation regarding their visceral hostility to using state power in the interests of the poor. They cannot hide their contempt and their media cheerleaders go along with them — with the term “dictator” and “strongman” still being used routinely to describe Chavez (while no such term was ever used to describe George Bush who took power illegally).
But if they simply ignore the stunning social progress made under Chavez, it is his other accomplishments that have them worried. Chavez’s foreign policy has severely weakened the grip that the U.S. and institutions like the IMF and World Bank had on the region. This legacy goes well beyond Venezuela’s borders and threatens the centuries-long domination of giant corporations and finance capital.
In 2011, Chavez was instrumental in creating of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) which brings together the 33 nations of the region — making the Organization of American States, the decades-old tool of U.S. political domination, almost irrelevant. On the trade front, in 2004 Chavez created the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) with Cubaestablishing the basis for an alliance (now with eight members) based on co-operation and reciprocity. Its explicit aim is “combating poverty and social exclusion” and again challenges the historic domination of the region by the U.S.
The question remains what effect Chavez’s death will have both on the future of Venezuela and the region. Now that the U.S. has extricated itself from two Middle East wars, it will turn its attention once again to its “backyard.” The empire will strike back. But the “good examples” (and there are many in Latin America including Bolivia and Ecuador) are robust and inspiring. Short of a return to concerted covert action or military intervention, the Latin American spring seems secure. Viva Chavez!
MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years. He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org