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Issue #1585      March 13, 2013

Chávez and the road ahead

“Do you want to know who Hugo Chávez was? Look at who is crying over his death and look at who is celebrating.” That was the very astute observation made by Fidel Castro following the death of his close friend and epoch-making Venezuelan president. There has been a huge outpouring of emotion across the globe at the comandante’s passing. The scenes on the streets of Caracas with masses of ordinary people showing their grief but, at the same time, celebrating the gains made by the revolution that came to be identified with the charismatic leader, summed up the feelings of the formerly dispossessed, disadvantaged people of that country and the poor of many others.

Of course, the world’s corporate media were not grieving. Hardly any reference to the late president could be made without the words “controversial”, “divisive”, “strongman” or even “dictator” being thrown in to make the editorial attitude perfectly plain. Weight was often given to sources claiming that Chávez had ruined the presumably sound economy he and his comrades found at the onset of the Bolivarian Revolution. Economic data in no way confirms these gloomy assessments of the Venezuelan economy.

Chávez allegedly “wasted” Venezuela’s oil wealth on programs designed to win favour with the poor and ensure that they would keep returning him to office. US President Obama said that he hopes that the event would signify a new chapter in the relationship between the US and Venezuela, as if Chávez were responsible for the strains that developed following outrageous meddling by the US, including support for a coup in 2002.

That was the reaction among the more “respectable” commentators on the right. A column in The Australian pointed to an uglier, even more misanthropic strain. The Strewth section couldn’t resist a combined swipe at Chávez and the CPA for good measure. “Press release headline of the day: ‘Communist Party of Australia deeply saddened by passing of Hugo Chávez.’ Meanwhile, in Capitalism ...”. The piece went on to record the scenes of wild celebration among right-wing expatriate Venezuelans and Cubans on the streets of Miami at the news of Chávez’ death.

That just about says it all about the very real ideological divide in the world today. On one side is the mocking celebration of death, alliance with the military aggressors of this world, narrow pursuit of personal gain and luxury, disdain for the exploited and their efforts to create a new era of peace with social justice. On the other is the life-affirming celebration of collective effort, gratitude at outstanding contributions to the common good such as those of Chávez, a desire for relations with other nations on the basis of friendship and mutual aid.

Lessons for Australia

Not all the column inches devoted to Chávez in the capitalist press have been written with poison ink. Last month, UK Guardian columnist Seumas Milne wrote an insightful piece about the enduring leftward trend in Latin American politics in the light of the re-election of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa the weekend before. It is worth quoting at length:

“So what should we make of a part of the world where governments have resolutely turned their back on that [neo-liberal] model, slashed poverty and inequality, taken back industries and resources from corporate control, massively expanded public services and democratic participation – and keep getting re-elected in fiercely contested elections?

“That is what has been happening in Latin America for a decade. The latest political leader to underline the trend is the radical economist Rafael Correa, re-elected as president of Ecuador at the weekend with an increased 57 percent share of the vote, while Correa’s party won an outright majority in parliament.

“But Ecuador is now part of a well-established pattern. Last October the much reviled but hugely popular Hugo Chávez, who returned home on Monday after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba, was re-elected president of Venezuela with 55 percent of the vote after 14 years in power in a ballot far more fraud-proof than those in Britain or the US. That followed the re-election of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Latin America’s first Indigenous president, in 2009; the election of Lula’s nominated successor Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in 2010; and of Cristina Fernandez in Argentina in 2011.

“Despite their differences, it’s not hard to see why. Latin America was the first to experience the disastrous impact of neo-liberal dogma and the first to revolt against it. Correa was originally elected in the wake of an economic collapse so devastating that one in 10 left the country. Since then his ‘citizen’s revolution’ has cut poverty by nearly a third and extreme poverty by 45 percent. Unemployment has been slashed, while social security, free health and education have been rapidly expanded – including free higher education, now a constitutional right – while outsourcing has been outlawed.”

The contrast between the level of respect shown by the people of Latin America for this generation of left-leaning presidents and that which exists in developed countries for their leaders could not be more stark. Governments in the strongholds of imperialism are committed to new wars and other attacks on the sovereignty of other countries, the wiping out of what remains of public enterprise, greater wealth for the already wealthy and increasingly harsh “austerity” for working people and pensioners. The people’s distaste for these leaders is such that barely half of US citizens bother to vote. In Australia, voters strongly disapprove of both the Prime Minister and her opposite number, Tony Abbott. They are both on the nose and speculation persists that their parties would be better off without them, at least until their replacements suffer their own, inevitable fall from favour

The people of Latin America and leaders like Hugo Chávez have shown the way. The lesson is there for us to learn – that we’d don’t have to be resigned to governments taking back the gains of decades of struggle. We don’t have to make nonsensical “choices” between parties driving down expectations for our future; that we can strike out in a new direction towards socialism. The road is long but the journey won’t be made any shorter by continuing in the wrong direction.   

Next article – Editorial – Stop blaming teachers

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