Sunday, December 02, 2007

Who is Hugo Chavez?

I have to admit being intrigued by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The man has certainly wormed his way into the American public consciousness. I once had a friend tell me that he would be willing to fight under Chavez before he would take the side of George W. Bush. I was amazed that this mild pacifistic intellectual would take such a stance. Don't get me wrong... I certainly understand the invective that many of our frustrated citizens direct against what has turned out to be the worst president in the history of the United States. But I really didn't know anything about Hugo Chavez, other than the fact that many progressive Americans had taken an interest in his political rise.

Like a modern day folk hero, Chavez has patterned his leadership style on his historical hero, Simon Bolivar. In fact his self-styled revolution is even named after "The Great Liberator". The Bolivarian Revolution includes Democratic Socialism, Latin American integration, and anti-imperialism. Furthermore his platform includes strenuous efforts to fight poverty, disease, illiteracy and malnutrition. He has been a vocal critic of American foreign policy under 'Dubya', and regularly voices his opposition to neoliberal globalization. Because of these actions Chavez has made himself one of the most polarizing figures in the Twenty-first Century. Still, with the vast majority of the mainstream US media aligned against him, I felt it might be worthwhile to take a closer look into his ascendancy.

Chavez was born in a mud hut in 1954. He spent much of his early life working in the military, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant colonel. Ironically, he began that career as part of a counterinsurgency battalion. He ultimately found himself working as a teacher and staff member at the Military Academy of Venezuela. As he rose through the ranks he became outspoken in his opposition to the injustices he observed throughout Venezuelan society. After starting the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, he became active in national politics. In 1992, he led a failed coup d'etat against President Carlos Perez. He landed himself in Yare Prison. Two years later, after the impeachment of Perez, he was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera. Once freed Chavez continued his campaign to reform his nation.

In 1998, Chavez ran for the Venezuelan presidency on promises to end the puntofijismo- the two-party patronage system which he blamed for much of the corruption which was plaguing his country. He found his support base among the poor and working classes. Upon assuming office, his first moves were to institute programs of mass vaccination, road building and housing construction. He stopped the privatization of the social security system, aluminum industry holdings, and the oil sector. He addressed tax inequities, focusing on major corporations and landholders. Chavez even created a Constitutional Assembly, which fundamentally changed the way Venezuela was governed. In 2001, after being re-elected despite scuffles with both the business community and labor organizations, Chavez instituted programs that lowered infant mortality, provided free public health care, and offered free education up to the university level. Inflation fell and the economy's growth was steady.

In 2002, Chavez barely survived what turned out to be an unsuccessful coup directed against him and his will to nationalize his nation's oil reserves. There has been ample suggestion that the United States government was involved in an effort to overthrow Chavez. In fact the Venezuelan president maintains that the US had even initiated assassination attempts against him. During this time the PDVSA (which managed oil Venezuela revenues) continued to resist Chavez's authority through a series of general strikes. At the end of that tumultuous year, Chavez fired 18,000 PDVSA employees. During 2003 he tried to shore up political support with new programs to confront adult illiteracy, protect the rights of Venezuela's indigenous peoples, and provide free higher and remedial education to the disenfranchised. In 2004, he was rewarded for his efforts with a presidential recall referendum (which he won with a 59% 'no' vote).

With the increased revenues resulting from rising oil prices, Chavez looked to continue his 'Bolivarian missions' in 2005 and 2006. He diverted funds toward the improvement of the nation's medical facilities, and started a citizens' militia. He also became active in international relations, seeking bilateral and multilateral agreements with Argentina, China, Cuba and Iran. Chavez called for a Latin American progressive version of NATO and pronounced the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas "dead". Turning away from the traditional US sources of military equipment, Chavez began purchasing arms from Brazil, Russia, China and Spain. In addition he joined with Cuba in an effort to offer free medical training to 100,000 physicians who would agree to work in poor countries in the Southern Hemisphere

Chavez went on to garner both support and increased controversy in the United States by offering free heating oil to 200,000 impoverished New Yorkers. He further inflamed passions in the US by referring to George W. Bush as "the Devil" in a United Nations speech that drew thundering applause. Despite the Bush administration's consistent attempts to undermine his government, Chavez was able to attain re-election in late 2006. This year he has continued plans to nationalize further segments of the Venezuelan economy, including key companies in the electrical sector. He has also sought to eliminate the autonomy of the National Bank, and has formally withdrawn from both the IMF and the World Bank.

The latest news from Venezuela has Chavez actively seeking to end presidential term limits. This move appears to undermine his stated support for grassroots democracy. The concept that entrenched power inevitably leads to vast corruption is commonly accepted by many throughout the worldwide progressive movement. Yet in tough times during the most difficult transition periods, people have generally turned to populist figures who promised to improve the plights of the most unfortunate among a nation's populace (FDR is a good local example). If Chavez's rhetoric meets reality, then he will continue to be a much beloved politician for a large segment of Venezuela. Unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, Chavez has resources to fund his most ambitious social programs. But that advantage identifies him as a target for aggressive imperialists.

Lately Chavez has been making noise about cutting off the flow of oil to the US if it continues to denounce his administration. Ironically the United States remains Venezuela's biggest trading partner for both oil and general exports. He has been known as the biggest 'price hawk' in OPEC, consistently seeking limits on production in order to increase energy costs worldwide. In a period of increasing concerns regarding diminishing oil resources in general, Chavez retains a large stock in reserve that promises to ensure his place as a power player while simultaneously placing him in an international 'hot seat'. His legacy will continue to depend upon his ability to play that card wisely in uncertain and chaotic times.

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