I asked some young Black people recently if they were familiar with Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately they weren’t, but I got their attention when I told them that he was the democratically elected president of Venezuela who had recently died after losing a bout with cancer. I told them that Chavez was a great man and truly a man of his people.
I told them how Chavez had called out the Bush administration (he even called Bush the devil) and about how he had begun to use the resources of the Venezuelan people for the Venezuelan people and not for the benefit of their Yankee neighbor to the north: the U.S. ruling class.
But when I told them that the U.S. government didn’t like him and that he had Black blood running through his veins and that he had grown up poor and as leader of his country didn’t forget his roots, they began to shake their heads and said, “Yeah, we need to learn about this dude.”
Of course the U.S. government, and capitalist governments in general, hated him because he would not allow them to run roughshod over his country. And in his death, those who claimed to be superior to him and his ideas showed themselves in the end to be his inferiors by celebrating his death and not even sending the proper condolences.
That’s right, the right-wing section of Venezuelans who worship private property and the free market, or who have a fetish for the rich and their ideas, were taking to the streets celebrating his death. Ironically, those protesting were not rich but primarily working class who are simply playing the role of lackeys for the ruling class.
Even the White House couldn’t bring itself to offer true condolences. (You can look it up, or Google the president’s response, which was not one of sympathy.) After all, a head of state had died. He had not been a mass murderer or thief or someone of ill character.
So, why couldn’t the White House do the proper thing and send his country and his family a note of sympathy for their loss? It seems that would be the decent thing to do.
Even mobsters attend their opponents’ funerals and offer words of sympathy to the families of those who have suffered loss. Yet those who claim to have been better than Chavez couldn’t bring themselves to act like decent human beings.
Even the so-called objective U.S. press couldn’t help itself. The New York Times ran a hit piece that pretended to be objective by interviewing and allowing both his opponents and supporters to express their views. Of course, the only problem with that is that while opinion of Chavez may be divided, it’s not divided equally.
Chavez was adored by the vast majority of the country. Yet The New York Times — even in the wake of his death — tried to impress upon its readers that the jury is still out and tried to give equal weight to those who somehow saw Chavez as not being a good leader.
So what did Chavez do that was so awful that a sitting president couldn’t bring himself to offer proper respect and sympathy? Ironically, they both had Black blood running through their veins.
Chavez’s crime was that he broke with the exploitative relationship with the U.S. in which they got to dictate policy to the South Americans and allowed U.S. multinationals free reign to exploit their natural resources. Chavez instead nationalized Venezuelan oil, and now that very important resource is managed in a way that benefits Venezuelans, not U.S. multinationals.
Chavez is hated even in death and disrespected by the leaders of capitalist countries and their lackeys because, as someone wrote, of “the refusal he represents for the poor and dispossessed, for the exploited and oppressed — a refusal to go as before, to submit to neoliberal capitalism and to get on one’s knees before imperialism.”
Under Chavez, the poverty in Venezuela was cut in half, and extreme poverty was cut by 70 percent. As a result of his policies, millions of poor Venezuelans got health care for the first time, many of the poor were afforded access to public education, and the number of college students from poor backgrounds nearly doubled.
In fact, many of the poor are now able to go to college because of government aid. His government even tripled the eligibility role for public pensions.
Critics even try to overlook the fact that he was democratically elected — twice. It was the Venezuelan right wing, with help from the U.S., that tried to overthrow Chavez in 2002 when they orchestrated a brief coup d’état. But ironically, that failed when the people rallied to the government’s defense along with the military and overturned after 48 hours the attempt to steal the presidency.
There is no doubt that Chavez wasn’t perfect; at times he was clearly autocratic. But sometimes when one has the best vision it is true that the person with the clearest vision is best prepared to carry it out. There are still poor in Venezuela; the slums are still wracked by violence (much stimulated by right-wing chicanery). They are still struggling to right some of his poorer management decisions.
As author Jeffery Webber, who has written quite a bit on Latin America, put it, “To his wealthy and light-skinned enemies he was evil incarnate. To many impoverished Venezuelans, his contradictory and eclectic ideology — that included 19th century Simon Bolivar and 20th century Zamora nationalism and anti-imperialism, bureaucratic Cuban socialism, social Christianity, pragmatic economics and currents of socialism from below — made a good deal of sense, at least insofar as he had come from origins like theirs and had made the right sort of enemies.”
Those who love justice, freedom and inequality should give Chavez his due and mourn the passing of a colored man who, despite his own failings, never failed to stand for his people.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.