An alternative to Washington Consensus
The legacy of Hugo Chavez is a many-splendored thing. Venezuela is a country with a population of around 30 million with limited national strength and yet Chavez’s death is being noted and discussed as an international event of much significance. Despite the sustained campaign by the West to demonize Chavez as a «dictator», the world opinion at large takes him seriously as a man of destiny, as is borne out by the fulsome praise lavished on him by leaderships in Brazil, Russia, China, India and so on.
At the end of the day, what matters is that despite his authoritarian style of leadership – Latin American tradition of caudillismo or strongman rule – Chavez was a genuinely elected leader and in every election that he fought, he emerged far ahead of his rivals. What explains this extraordinary popularity among his people?
In a nutshell, it was the Bolivarian Revolution, Chavez’s vision of making Venezuela into a socialist state. He undertook numerous social «missions» aimed at promoting mass literacy, providing for food security and health care all over the country. The result is plain to see. Chavez succeeded in good measure in the redistribution of Venezuela’s wealth and in raising the living standards of the downtrodden people.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, poverty in Venezuela dropped by a whopping 20.8 percent – from 48.6% to 27.7 – in the eight years between 2002 to 2010 alone and the extent of Chavez’s success in closing the gap between the rich and the poor has been such that the country today has the lowest Gini coefficient anywhere in Latin America – 0.394.
The World Bank estimates that during the 2003-2009 period the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from 62% to 29%. In the six-year period from 2001 to 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%. Clearly, Chavez navigated Venezuela to a high level of socio-economic equality.
This and this alone would explain the massive outpouring of support for him in election after election from the country’s working class. But even more important, he gave them a voice, a sense of dignity, an assertiveness to claim their rights and even the right to dream of a better life.
Indeed, this worked in other ways too. First, Washington was «stuck» with Chavez. All the dirty tricks in the Central Intelligence Agency armory could not destabilize the Chavez regime. Nor could Caudillismo be trifled with like Peronism could be. Put differently, it was not a matter of personality or cojones alone.
In different circumstances, Washington could have belittled Chavez for his lack of democratic instincts. But, on the contrary, Chavez kept Venezuela steadily on the democratic path. Human rights violations were a rare occurance. The media’s freedom to disagree or criticize the government was untramelled. Elections have been held regularly and they have been by and large fair by the estimation of impartial observers, and the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power was never really in doubt. The fact is, Chavez won his last election in October by winning 54% of the votes.
By the sheer force of his personality and his policies, Chavez ensured that «leftism» has become ingrained in Venezuela’s politics. Thus, in the October election, even the principal opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski ended up virtually endorsing Chavez’s missions and claiming that given an opportunity he could manage them better and more efficiently. The multitude of poor people, who were ignored and left behind, have regained their self-respect during the Chavez era and even without him they are bound to demand participation in the country’s political and social system. The fervor of the masses partly at least makes up for the danger that the system that Chavez has left behind is not as deep-rooted as it should be. Thus in the short run, his party is all but certain to retain power.
To be sure, Chavez has left an indelible mark on the political landscape of not only Venezuela but also the Latin American continent as a whole. He inspired the surge of left-wing politics across the continent. Several countries «swung» left during the past 14-year period – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru – and went on to elect left-wing leaders. What unites them is the accent these leaders have placed on tackling poverty and social justice and their pronounced opposition to US «imperialism».
Tapping into this synergy, Chavez played a seminal role to create new regional bodies with a concerted drive for regional integration – The Union of South American Nations [Unasur], Bolivian Alliance for the Americas [Alba] and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [Celac]. This was a shrewd strategy insofar as he created a «firewall» against possible US intervention in the region. The ground reality is that the Organization of American States [OAS], which the US used as an instrument of regional hegemony, has been relegated to the background and has lost its pre-eminence. The consequent loss of US influence in the region might well turn out to be Chavez’s greatest legacy.
From Washington’s viewpoint, the high water mark of its regional influence was in December 1994 in Miami when President Bill Clinton hosted the first Summit of the Americas in a quest to cast Latin America in the US’s image. From then on, it has been a steady decline. The pendulum began swinging virtually to the other side since 1998 when Chavez took over. Today the region is reverberating with the socialist model that Chavez expounded – and not the vast Arctic-to-Tierra-del-Fuego free trade zone of market economies that Bill Clinton envisioned.
Chavez has got it established that Latin America does not have to follow Washington’s lead, and, in fact, can be better off by not doing so. True, Chavez model has not become Latin America’s model uniformly, but his project has demonstrated in an overarching way that there are alternatives to Washington’s economic and political vision of development.
Chavez’s far-sightedness lies in his making available Venezuela’s oil largess to other impoverished regional states to rescue their economies so that they are strong enough to discount Washington’s diktat. He could see that by helping the small neighbors, he was strengthening Venezuela’s own capacity to withstand US pressures. In turn, his abrasive stance against US imperialism on the international stage also provided much political space for other less «militant» countries of Latin America to negotiate with Washington. Meanwhile, this emergent climate in Latin American politics opened the door to other big players to appear on the scene, which was hitherto dominated by the US – especially China.
Indeed, through a critical phase when all this was happening in Latin America, the US also got preoccupied with the effort to extricate itself from the quagmire in Iraq. But in the final analysis, it was Chavez’s initiatives to create economic union and political unity in the region that virtually rolled back the power of the US in the region. Added to this, his provocative stance on the world stage berating US imperialism struck a deep chord in the Latin American popular psyche. The snowballing effect of all this was apparent in the failure of the US to rally the support of many Latin American countries for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Looking back, Chavez succeeded in his mission to undermine the US influence all over Latin America and he probably succeeded on a scale that even Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in their heyday could not have…