Since the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of cancer three days ago, appreciation for what he accomplished in his14 years in office has been surprisingly scant and largely negative among U.S. news media. But the attendance of numerous heads of state and more than 50 national delegations, together with literally millions of Venezuelans, to the events celebrating his life’s accomplishments and to his lying in state and funeral, televised around the world, give a truer picture of President Chavez’s real importance and influence. He did some very remarkable things. He raised the standard of living of millions of poor Venezuelans, as his programs focusing on the poor reportedly reduced the percentage of Venezuelans in poverty from 80% to 20%, while virtually eliminating illiteracy. His government lowered the level of petroleum production proceeds of foreign oil companies doing business in Venezuela from 84% to 70%, thus raising the amount of oil proceeds staying in Venezuela from 16% to 30%. And he raised the royalty rates foreign companies were charged from a miniscule 1% to 16%. By redirecting oil profits from being sent overseas to using them for domestic programs, such as building and improving housing for families of very limited means, President Chavez made his country a more just place in which to live. And he focused attention and resources on health and education. His government built clinics and, in an exchange of medical personnel for oil with Cuba, made doctors available to families living in rural areas where none had been available previously. He spent substantial sums on education, making school attendance free, which has allowed many families of very limited resources to send their children to primary and secondary schools and even universities.
These are great accomplishments. They merit praise. Yet coverage by the major media in the United States has largely ignored these advances, focusing instead on Chavez’s supposed “class war” pitting the poor and disadvantaged against the rich or his classification of George W. Bush as the “devil” or a “donkey”. One may indeed say that Chavez was often arbitrary and disorganized in his design and implementation of development programs. But he was always for Venezuela. Thus he opposed the enrichment of foreign companies at the expense of Venezuela’s natural resources, while next door in Colombia President Alvaro Uribe’s government virtually gave away that country’s mineral wealth to foreign companies. (President Juan Manual Santos’s government has for the most part continued these giveaway terms to foreign mining companies.)
But the greatest accomplishment of President Chavez, the one with the most impact on the world order, was leading the creation of region-wide economic and political institutions. He brought together the governments of other South American countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay, among others—in a rejection of the “Washington Consensus” model of domination by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He led them in establishing and strengthening CELAC and other purely Latin American institutions, reducing these countries’ historical dependence upon the United States. And while the U.S. economy has floundered, the economies of these countries have, by and large, prospered. In this way Chavez has likely achieved a permanent change in the relationship between the United States and Latin America.
And while some, particularly in the U.S. press, have expressed doubts about how well Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, will be able to carry forward the reforms Chavez initiated, Maduro’s actions and statements so far have revealed a substantial capacity to organize and to express himself with confidence in a way that has won him popular support. He appears very likely to win the election to replace President Chavez next month. His real test will be to continue Venezuela’s leadership of the initiative to develop Latin American solidarity in support of the new political and economic model challenging the role of the IMF and the World Bank and the United States’ propensity to treat the region as its special sphere of influence.
For those of us who observe these events from the United States, I think it especially important to support the initiatives Hugo Chavez undertook to unify Latin American nations with a dedication to improving the lives of the common man. A more equal distribution of economic resources and access of all people to health care and education will result in a more just society. And it will result in greater “stability”, the concept U.S. policy-makers always cite as the goal of U.S. foreign policy. That “stability” will no longer be defined as growing wealth for multinational corporations nor increased U. S. access to Latin American markets and protection of U.S. control of natural resources in the region, which is what lies behind the term as used by U.S. government officials. It will mean justice and fairness, and support by the countries’ residents for a government that has internalized these values. It is good that Congressman Gregory Meeks and former Congressman William Delahunt attended the services for President Chavez, and that the Reverend Jesse Jackson and actor Sean Penn also came to pay their respects. It is unfortunate that the Obama Administration sent only the Charge d’ Affairs, not the Secretary of State, to recognize the accomplishments of Hugo Chavez.
March 9, 2013