Hugo Chavez: US Bogeyman Who Helped the Poor

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Ben Cohen
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Much to the displeasure of the US government, the majority of Venezuelans will mourn the death of their beloved leader Hugo Chavez. And for good reason. While Chavez was an imperfect leader who deserved much criticism, his government did much to improve the lives of the poorest Venezuelans and restore power to the indigenous population that had been ruled by European elites for centuries. Chavez was an inspirational leader for many South Americans, and he was instrumental in initiating regional integration and independence from a US political domination and economic control.

Chavez

Most Americans wrongly believe Chavez was a dictator. He was not. Chavez was democratically elected four times, each certified by UN monitors. The former military leader was detested by the US government because he wouldn't bow down to their demands. Unlike obedient third world leaders desperate to sell off their country's resources to enrich themselves, Chavez demanded renegotiations of oil contracts with Western countries, and used the proceeds to build schools, house the poor and improve health care. While the wealthy elites hated Chavez for disrupting cosy relationships with Western corporations, the majority of Venezuelans welcomed the use of government in preventing the exploitation of their natural resources by foreign companies. When the US initiated a coup in 2002 that temporarily overthrew the Chavez government, poor Venezuelans were so incensed they marched him back into the Presidential palace where he remained as leader until his death.

Chavez was a flawed leader who spent far too much time developing a cult of personality than organizing his government.  He did not have the best human rights record, and refused to deal with his country's astronomical crime rate. Chavez treatment of political opposition left much to be desired, and the bombastic leader's outbursts about foreign leaders were also embarrassing and unhelpful (no matter how truthful they were), making Venezuela's isolation from the West far easier for politicians to justify.

But under his leadership economic growth soared in Venezuela, despite the corruption that went along with it. His government achieved the highest literacy rates in the region, and managed to drastically improve access to health care. As Mark Weisbrot noted in the New York Times:

Since the Chávez government got control over the national oil industry,poverty has been cut by half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent. College enrollment has more than doubled, millions of people have access to health care for the first time and the number of people eligible for public pensions has quadrupled.

These are facts routinely ignored by the Western media, who prefer to paint him as a despotic leader, bent on exporting Communism around Latin America. But the truth is far more complicated, and Chavez not so easy to label. It is difficult to listen to American politicians denounce Chavez when remaining silent on some of the world's worst killers. The Saudi government is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, and neighboring Colombia has an atrocious human rights record far, far worse than Venezuela's. But both countries are run by governments subservient to Washington's demands, and are therefore given the green light to murder their citizens without recourse.

There is no doubt that Chavez was a complicated man who was certainly corrupt and prone to serious errors in judgment. The Venezuela he leaves behind is still not a pretty sight, and some of that was his own doing. But it should be remembered that Chavez took over a country decimated by hundreds of years of Western exploitation and achieved some truly extraordinary results, particularly for those least represented in its political system.

Chavez helped start a movement and the building blocks of a system of government that shunned capitalism in favor of a more humane economic ideology that was not solely concerned with profit. He dared to openly defy the rich and powerful, and sought to create a government that actually worked for the average citizen. Chavez no doubt died knowing his mission was far from complete, but he made people believe that another reality was possible. And if change was possible in one of the most impoverished nations in Latin America, then it is possible anywhere. And for that, Chavez deserves to be remembered well.