The world got word on Tuesday evening that Hugo Chavez was dead. Felled by chronic cancer, the 58-year old transformed Venezuela in his 14 years at its helm. He lifted masses of his countrymen from the depths of poverty, the ignorance of illiteracy, and the penury of medical neglect. He reclaimed Venezuela’s oil resources for the benefit of the majority, and rallied Latin nations under a banner of common interest, anti-imperialism, and self-determination.
Perhaps the best way to consider Chavez accomplishments is by contrasting them—head to head—with those of his American counterpart, Barack Obama. After all, they are each the most celebrated and reviled figures in their countries, and perhaps the hemisphere. Chavez has been in office for three terms; Obama only one. But the Obama administration is simply the latest caretaker of an ongoing neoliberal and imperial regime inherited from George Bush and his predecessors. Empire’s game plan is continuous; details change with leadership.
Both Obama and Chavez were re-elected in the fall of 2012—one claiming a paltry mandate, the other swept unchallenged to a fourth term. Prior to Chavez’ passing, analysts expected to see a widening abyss between the austerity-addicted North and the socialist-leaning South. But with the Venezuelan constitution requiring new elections within a month, that forecast is less certain. Future elections aside, the ideological—and social—gulf between the United States and Venezuela is as immense as any in the region, with the possible exception of perennial hemispheric pariah Cuba.
Authoritarianism: Vilification vs. Villainy
Chavez was routinely characterized as a tyrant or dictator in western media during his 14-year run as Venezuela’s president. He provided little support for these claims, although he did exhibit a few authoritarian impulses in office. But he was so consistently vilified in western media principally because of his thankless role as a paladin of the underclass. He was demonized because he didn’t follow Western prescriptions for economic development—or rather, economic dispossession. In point of fact, what he did was simply work in the interests of his own population, not on behalf of Western multinationals. He sought to shelter domestic industry, reviled extractive finance, and loosed global capital’s grip on the federal till. Somehow, thanks to the dividend dementia of our autocratic elites, this was taken to be a radical position. A position consonant with the State Department’s definition of a dictator. Forget the fact that Venezuela is now the most equal nation in Latin America, and that the opposition controls the majority of the domestic media, and that a recent comprehensive labor law was passed guaranteeing worker protections, social security, and gender equity. Only whole-cloth subservience to the Washington Consensus is acceptable behavior in the eyes of beltway plutocrats.
Perhaps one fact above all renders moot the tyrant label. In last October’s election, Chavez won 55 percent of the vote in demolishing one-percent stooge Henrique Capriles. A record 97 percent of eligible Venezuelans registered and many millions voted, causing the normally unstinting election critic Jimmy Carter to say, “…of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
By contrast, the 2012 election in the United States reflected the general public’s lack of enthusiasm for either candidate on offer. The president, claiming the mandate of the American people, was reelected with a paltry 29 percent of eligible voters in tow—in an election notable only in that 90 million eligible voters were too dispirited to vote or were barred from participation. Perhaps Obama’s own autocratic behavior offers a partial explanation. A small sampling: Over Christmas 2012 Obama signed a five-year extension of H.R. 5949, better known by as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or by its acronym FISA. This bill allows Homeland Security to spy on citizen communications with people abroad. On New Year’s Eve last year, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, better known by its acronym NDAA, which authorized the government to indefinitely detain Americans at sites like Guantanamo without trial. Laws like these, and the widely assailed drone assassination program, a failed surge in Afghanistan, and a destructive attack on Libya, have disillusioned a vast percentage of Americans, including progressives, who now question whether their Nobel Peace Prize winning savior has become the Anti-Christ—an authoritarian enthusiast of empire willing to set aside habeas corpus and due process to prosecute a metastasizing and ever remote “war on terror.”
Poverty: Amelioration vs. Exacerbation
There’s a reason why Hugo Chavez won his fourth consecutive term in office in 2012. A simple graph should suffice. In Venezuela over the last decade, Chavez cut poverty by half and deep poverty by 70 percent. Millions have been enrolled in a free healthcare system that is less than perfect, but better than the nothing 17 of 29 million Venezuelans were receiving before the Bolivarian Revolution took hold. Chavistas also launched a major literacy initiative, lifting hundreds of thousands out of intellectual indigence. As literacy surges, so does education—free education—from grade school through university. This means graduates won’t be saddled with debts needlessly incurred while funding university endowments. This often drives college grads to move down career paths they’d rather not follow, but for the albatross invoice that lands in their mailbox with maddening regularity. Of course, debt-free Venezuelans are also signing up in droves for rapidly expanding pension programs that cover even taxi drivers and cosmeticians.
As of 2011, by contrast, 46 million Americans were mired in poverty. Six million have descended into poverty since 2008. Officially, ‘poverty’ means a family of four trying to make do on $23,000 a year. Good luck with that. Or, as CBS News reported the same year, 150 million Americans—half of us—are officially low income, according to the Census Bureau. So, the lower class metastasizes, larger in number and broader in distribution than the crumbling middle class, but our political leadership has taken a blood oath to deny the existence of the former as the latter evaporates, leaving a curious cipher at the soul of American politics—for whom are these shirt-sleeved liberals fighting? One class is nearly extinct, another non-existent. Is there a third unmentionably tiny slice of the citizenry that factors into the equation? Perhaps a parallel of Venezuela’s vengeful investor class, so pleased their Presidente has finally slipped the surly bonds of earth?
Trade: Collaboration vs. Exploitation
In terms of trade, few nations do less to love their neighbors than the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an unimprovable example of how our trade agreements wreak havoc on hemispheric economies. Heavily subsidized agribusiness in the United States desperately needs to dump its surplus abroad. Local producers in countries like Mexico can’t begin to compete when NAFTA shreds the protectionist measures that shielded them from American economies of scale. Hence a decimated domestic agricultural community in Mexico, not to mention NAFTA’s other bequests, such as maquiladoras and slave wages.
Our venerable model for dispossessing the natives is to divide and conquer. For decades, the United States has divided the economies of the South, largely by forging discrete trade agreements with each, using aid as the carrot and debt payments and capital flight as the stick. For Chavez, accords like NAFTA and other bilateral agreements (CAFTA-DR, for example) represented attempts to impose unfair trade protocols on Southern nations teased into complicity with promises of access to lucrative American consumer markets.
The last thing the White House wants to see is more continental trade agreements among South Americans—a clarion call of its faltering regional sway. Of course, this is precisely what Chavez had been trying to effect. Recognizing that only a unified front stands the slightest chance of defying the hemispheric bully to the north, Chavez set out to expand Mercosur into a continental trade platform, not simply that of South America’s southern cone. Then he worked to build additional inter-continental co-operatives including Telesur, PetroCaribe, and Petrosur, as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
Chavez also threw the IMF and World Bank out of Venezuela and encouraged his neighbors to do the same; for him, they were simply empire’s first responders, opportunists happy to exploit misfortune, and rushing into the breach to do with debt what had once been done by arms. As Latin growth figures show, Chavez’ concept of continental self-reliance has its merits, but this stab at regional independence—a step outside Washington’s sphere of influence—is the very policymaking that northern pundits are quick to undermine.
It sometimes seems as though United States’ foreign policy models itself on Gore Vidal’s memorable note of schadenfreude, “It isn’t enough that I succeed; others must fail.” If only the two were not so imbricated, as non-zero sum theorists tirelessly proclaim.
Economics: Equality vs. Austerity
Our politicians and their media parrots remorselessly remind us that there is no money available for lavish social programs that might correct our imbalances. Rather than irrigate the tree of liberty, we must chop it down to size. Instead of enshrining health care as a human right—as Chavistas did in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution—we must imperil the security of seniors in order to reign in deficits that would drop naturally if we stimulated growth artificially—with a public jobs program, for instance.
What’s more, we are told, corporations must be unshackled from onerous concepts like taxation, so that they might generate greater shareholder dividends through interest rate arbitrage on exciting international currency markets (keywords: global casino). And, of course, we must set aside half of our treasure for that great cause of noble men everywhere—war—while Venezuela practices the inexpensive but exotic concept of non-aggression. Even so, a trillion dollars a year is unlikely to stanch the flow of the global dispossessed into the sympathetic embrace of jihadists. At least not as long as we continue to lead the world in state terror—the leading cause of reciprocal terrorism.
As we yoke austerity to recession, thus ensuring deeper depression, Venezuela raises domestic spending. Real GDP in Venezuela has doubled since 2003, when Chavez made the unconscionable decision to seize the oil sector and funnel its profits into popular social programs, leaving in his wake a tranche of spoiled petro-executives clamoring for a coup. Legislating that at least 51 percent of your national resource be owned by your government—ostensibly the people’s representative—hardly seems a radical notion. Of course, this is exactly the kind of policy IMF lenders seeks to subvert when they condition their loans on the privatization of public resources.
What’s the immediate result of such a ‘radical’ policy? Government monies culled from oil sales have been rolled into the domestic economy; worker cooperatives, communal councils, diversified local media, and investment banks have delivered power into community coffers, decentralizing the means of production in a move that feels alternately Bolivarian and, dare we say it, Jeffersonian. Per capita GDP, according to the IMF, is up some 50 percent since the failed 2002 coup. Venezuela now has the least income inequality on any country in South America.
And while Capitol Hill rehearses its pantomime of horror at recession-fuelled deficits, debt levels in Venezuela stand just over 50 percent of GDP—leading no one outside of The Washington Post to declare an economic crisis. The European Union, by contrast, regularly carries debt at more than 80 percent of GDP.
Other metrics of the economy—used by Western media to paint a portrait of destabilization—are variable. After devaluing its currency in 2010, pundits predicted massive inflation. Instead, inflation declined for two years, while economic growth topped 4 percent both years. Nor do critics note Venezuela’s spiraling rate of inflation before Chavez took office—or that he has actually significantly reduced it.
Food shortages are also present, another surprising condition in a country of declining poverty. Western critics naturally point to price controls as the cause, providing a typically ideological explanation for a problem that appears to have a more nuanced answer. Food consumption in Venezuela has exploded since Chavez took office in 1999. The population consumed 26 million tons of food in 2012, double the 13 million tons they consumed in 1999. The government claims the shortages are simply a consequence of consumption. Food production is up 71 percent since Chavez took office, but consumption is up 94 percent.
One related metric that isn’t encouraging is crime. In stark contrast to improving economic numbers, Venezuela’s murder rate increased threefold during Chavez’ three terms in office, now third highest in the Americas. Analysts find these figures baffling since most had assumed crime would decline with inequality.
The Wolf at the Door
As Naomi Klein pointed out in her book Shock Doctrine, neoliberals salivate at an opportunity to exploit calamity. What Klein didn’t mention was that disaster capitalism applies as much to individuals as to global events. A tsunami sweeps through a sleepy fishing village in South Asia, and the vultures of laissez faire swoop down to claim valuable coastline. A tranquil fishing trade is papered over by the errant ecology of a five-star resort that twice dispossesses natives: it bars them from their own land and sea, and it vacuums profits out of the country that might usefully be made on the now-confiscated soil. But unquenchable capitalists know they can achieve the same effect when they unseat nascent nationalists who don’t toe the line. Cue the people’s “tyrant”, Hugo Chavez. His death opens a door for American foreign policymakers that desperately want to eliminate the threat of a good example, to borrow a phrase from our glorious Vietnam era. With Chavez gone, a new election will be scheduled to take place within 30 days. Will Chavez’ Vice President Nicolas Maduro claim the presidency? Will opposition forces, backed by major national media and fueled by American dollars, be able to wrest the government from the socialist majority?
Instead of squandering taxpayer dollars trying to undermine of popular social movement on another continent, the Obama administration could do something truly constructive. It could finally concede it has something to learn from socialism, from other peoples’ constitutions, from the Fifth Republic, and from the defiant brown faces of political revolutionaries across the Caribbean, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. There’s plenty on offer from Chavistas, Naxalites, Adivasis, indigenous Bolivians, Spanish indignados and other off-the-imperial-path communities. The world is full of solutions. Not all of ours have to originate in the chicken scratch of a Founding Father or the madcap scribble of an Austrian economist. But all this may be a tall order for a speechifying elitist that has been so comprehensively outdone by a melody making, poetry reciting, Lincoln-quoting man of the people.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the corporate communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.