Fidel Castro: “Not even he knew how great he was.”
On March 8, the Venezuelan people bid a final farewell to their beloved commandante and leader, Hugo Rafael Chavez Friaz. It was one of the biggest funerals ever witnessed in Latin America. More than two million people waited patiently in the hot Caracas sun to pay their respects to a man whom they had elected three times in a row as President and who had been an integral part of their lives for the past 15 years. An eight-kilometre-long march, with hundreds of thousands of Chavistas (Chavez supporters), dressed in red, accompanied the procession of the President’s coffin from the hospital to the military academy in Caracas. The academy itself is situated on Heroes Avenue, which is dedicated to patriots such as Simon Bolivar, who led Latin America’s liberation struggle in the 19th century. The queues were so long that the government extended the period available for the viewing of the body by seven days. If the outpouring of grief and praise in Venezuela and the rest of the world is any indicator, Chavez seems to have already joined the pantheon of revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara and other Latin American historical icons like Bolivar. Like his hero, Bolivar, Chavez too has left his task unfinished, but he has revived Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America by laying the groundwork.
Fidel Castro, who was a hero to the late Venezuelan President, said that the Cuban people lost “the best friend they ever had”. Writing in the second week of March, Castro said that the “bitter news” of Chavez’s death was a heavy blow despite his being aware of the dire medical condition of the Venezuelan President. “Not even he knew how great he was,” Fidel Castro observed, while emphasising that he had “the honour of having shared with the Bolivarian leader the same ideals of social justice and support for the oppressed”. The Cuban government said in a statement that “his heroic and indefatigable battle against death is an unsurpassable example of fortitude”. For the last two years, Chavez had been in and out of Cuban hospitals, undergoing treatment for cancer. The Cuban government paid tribute to the “extraordinary generosity of Chavez” during Cuba’s difficult times and pledged “eternal loyalty” to the goals of revolutionary unity and the integration of the region. Chavez, the statement said, revived and spearheaded Bolivar’s dream of a unified “Patria Grande” (Grand Homeland) in South America.
Among his supporters in Venezuela and the wider region, Chavez was known as the “People’s President” and the “Christ of the Poor”. He drew his inspiration from Christian liberation theology and socialist ideology. “First of all I am a Christian and then a socialist,” the late Venezuelan leader was fond of saying. He always carried a small cross and a copy of the socialist Bolivarian Constitution in his shirt pocket.
Chavez was born in the Venezuelan hinterland 58 years ago and grew up poor in a house with mud walls. By dint of hard work and his own brilliance, he acquired the qualifications to get admission into the military school. The first time he won the national limelight was as a lieutenant colonel in the paratroop regiment that headed a failed coup in 1992. Venezuela was in ferment: people had taken to the streets to protest against the neoliberal economic polices implemented by Carlos Andres Perez’s government. Some 3,000 Venezuelans were killed in the uprising, dubbed the “Caracazo”, against policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Political career Chavez and his comrades in the abortive coup were sentenced to long prison terms. Before going to jail, he said, wearing his trademark red beret, that “unfortunately for the moment” the movement he had spearheaded had not “achieved the objectives” but predicted that “new possibilities will arise and the country will be able to move definitively to a new future”. He was released after two years following the victory of the opposition in the 1994 elections. Chavez then formed his own party, the Fifth Republic Party, and criss-crossed the country, propagating a “Bolivarian” and socialist message. He won the elections in 1998, sidelining the Democratic Action and Copei, the two parties that had alternated in power from the 1950s. Thereafter, he faced the electorate 16 times, tasting victory by wide margins in all but one election. He was described as “the most elected President” in recent world history. The election process in Venezuela is recognised as being among the most transparent and fair in the world. Jimmy Carter, former United States President, considered it “the best in the world”.
Once in power, Chavez started implementing cautiously his vision for transforming Venezuelan society. In December 1999, he successfully persuaded the Venezuelan public to approve a new Constitution. That gave more representation to marginalised indigenous communities and women. Chavez once described himself as a “feminist socialist”. The country was renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The ideology of “Bolivarianism”, inspired by Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America and the ideals of what Chavez chose to describe as 21st century socialism, became the guiding principles. After the approval of the new Constitution a new election was held in 2000, which Chavez won. The year also marked the beginning of strong bilateral ties with Cuba. Venezuela gave oil to Cuba at preferential rates in exchange for trained Cuban doctors and educators. Where Castro tried and failed in the 20th century, Chavez succeeded in the 21st, transforming Latin America into a progressive and economically dynamic region.
He loved to talk The elite, still in control of the commanding heights of the economy, did not take kindly to the political ground slipping under their feet. The media, both print and electronic, which the elite had monopolised, criticised and ridiculed the government. Indeed, 95 per cent of the media continue to be in private hands. Chavez responded with his own weekly programme, “Alo Presidente”, which soon acquired a mass following. He spoke for hours to a national audience, allowing them to ask questions and participate in the discussions pertaining to key issues. Chavez loved to talk. On an average his public speeches accounted for 45 hours every week. This correspondent was witness to a five-hour talk by Chavez in Caracas in 2006. His sense of humour, humility and deep understanding of international issues were on full display as he held the rapt attention of a hall full of foreign delegates. He ate frugally, slept little, drank endless cups of coffee, and worked until midnight. He never smoked or drank. During his 2005 India visit, he charmed everybody by his oratory and humanism. Chavez was given one of the biggest welcomes of his life when he visited Kolkata. He was visibly moved while visiting a primary school in West Bengal where the children were eating their frugal midday meal of rice and lentils. Chavez wanted to visit India again and was especially keen on going to Kerala. But the Indian government, possibly wary of his anti-imperialist rhetoric, was not too eager to host him. Chavez, however, put great emphasis on bilateral relations with India. In his efforts to diversify energy links, which currently are heavily dependent on the American market, he reached out to India and China. Indian petroleum companies have signed big contracts in Venezuela, but China has emerged as a much larger investor and one of the country’s biggest trading partners.
An unnatural death? Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s designated political heir, said in his emotional funeral oration that Chavez’s “soul and spirit are so strong that his body could not handle it, and now his soul and spirit roam the universe, spreading and filling us with blessing and love”. He added that Chavez had “left us with the task of continuing to build this democratic socialist model that he began”. Earlier, Maduro pledged on state television that he would order an inquiry into the circumstances leading to Chavez’s death. “There have been too many historical cases of such clandestine assassinations,” Maduro said. Chavez himself had accused the United States of hatching plots to assassinate him. “If they kill me, the name of the person responsible is George Bush,” he said in 2005. Maduro did not name any country but said that the U.S. had set up laboratories in the 1940s “where they experimented with causing cancer—seventy years have passed. Could they have progressed from there?” Among the numerous U.S. attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, one was with radiation. The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, reacted to Chavez’s “suspicious” death by saying that if the “imperialists” did not achieve their goals either with a “democratic election or a putsch—then they are trying different methods—that is, ending someone’s life”. Speaking to reporters in Quito, Morales said that Chavez was only 58 years old and added that “sooner or later” it would be proved that there was an attempt on his life. The Venezuelan government has announced that it is forming a commission to inquire into the illness that caused the death. Maduro said that “important scientists from different countries” would help in the investigations.
Friends galore Many countries, including Iran and Nigeria, decreed days of official mourning for Chavez. Presidents and leaders from around the world were present at the state funeral. Fifty-five countries sent official delegations. Thirty-three of the delegations were led by heads of state or government. There was very little high-profile representation from the West, where Chavez was routinely demonised.
All the Presidents from Latin America were present, which in itself was a tribute to the man who was instrumental in the forging of the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This grouping explicitly excludes the U.S. and Canada. CELAC is meant to act as a counterweight to U.S. political and economic hegemony on the continent. It is currently chaired by Cuban President Raul Castro, signalling the country’s full integration into the region.
Chavez was also instrumental in the formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, patterned after the European Union (EU). He was, too, the moving spirit behind the creation of another, smaller, regional grouping—ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) in 2004. Venezuela set up Bank of the South to combat the World Bank and the Washington Consensus, which had made the region a free market area from where resources were extracted and where goods were marketed. In 2005, he created Petrocaribe to supply subsidised fuel to 18 needy countries in the region. Not many people know that Venezuela provides fuel at highly subsidised rates to disadvantaged communities in the U.S. also.
Transforming role Before Chavez came on the scene, it was the Washington-dominated Organisation of American States (OAS) that held centre stage in the region. Since Chavez took over the leadership in Venezuela, there has been what sections of the media describe as a “pink revolution” sweeping over the continent. In the last decade, most of Latin America has distanced itself from Washington. Chavez was the standard-bearer of the radical changes taking place in Latin America. He was of course ably assisted in the task by the other left-wing leaders in the region, like the Presidents of Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, highlighted Chavez’s key role in facilitating the ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerillas. Colombia and Venezuela were on the verge of war only a few years ago.
The former Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, wrote that history would “justifiably affirm” the role played by Chavez in the political and economic integration of Latin America. Lula said that even those disagreeing with the ideology espoused by Chavez could not “deny the level of camaraderie, of trust and even of love that Chavez felt for the poor of Venezuela and for the cause of Latin American integration”. Lula also pointed out that among Chavez’s important priorities was the improvement of ties between Latin American and the African and Asian continents. When many of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement and the global South capitulated to the hegemonism of the West after the Cold War, Chavez dared to blaze a counter-hegemonistic trail of his own, championing anti-imperialism. It was the support of the Venezuelan people that undermined the military coup, supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that deposed Chavez briefly in 2002. That defining moment changed Venezuelan and Latin American history.
One of the key factors that precipitated the coup was a new “Hydro-carbon Law” that was passed in 2001, which sharply raised the royalty prices paid by Western oil companies for heavy crude from the Orinoco basin from 1 per cent to 16 per cent. There was a serious attempt by the management of the state oil company, Petroleus de Venezuela (PDVSA), which was run by technocrats mostly trained in the U.S., to sabotage Chavez’s wide-ranging reform of the petroleum industry. There were strikes and sabotage attempts in 2002 and 2003. Venezuelan oil exports were affected, but the government finally managed to assert full control over the PDVSA’s functioning.
Social projects With the price of oil rising, Chavez began his ambitious social projects to empower the poor. In 2007, the hydrocarbon sector was nationalised. Western oil companies like ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, which refused to accede to the government’s terms, were asked to leave the country. Other foreign companies from Europe, Asia and Africa rushed in to fill the vacuum.
The government expenditure on social projects increased by more than 66 per cent. Some three million hectares of land was redistributed, enabling tens of thousands peasants to own land. Hospitals, schools and cooperatives were set up in urban and rural areas populated by the poor, and doctors and medical workers from Cuba came in to give a helping hand. A National Public Health System was created to ensure free access to health care for all Venezuelans. The malnutrition rate fell from 21 per cent in 1998 to less than 3 per cent in 2012. The infant mortality rate fell from 19.1 per thousand in 1999 to 10 per thousand in 2012. In the same period, poverty rates decreased from 42.8 per cent to 26.5 per cent. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Venezuela is the country with least income inequality in Latin America. Universal access to education was introduced in 2008.
In December 2005, UNESCO said that Venezuela had eradicated illiteracy. Forty thousand communal councils in urban barrios and rural areas have been established. The communal councils consist of 150-400 families in urban areas and are financed directly by state institutions. There were many more sterling achievements during the Chavez era, too numerous to be outlined here.
Chavez on world stage Carter, whose foundation regularly sent observers to the elections and referendums that Chavez organised almost on a yearly basis, was among the few American leaders who were liberal in their tributes to the departed leader. He highlighted “the gains made by the poor and vulnerable” during the Chavez presidency. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, did not bother to offer condolences to Chavez’s family or the people of Venezuela. Only a message conveying “an interest in developing constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government” and a homily on the importance of democracy and the rule of law was sent. Obama chose to disregard the fact that Venezuela under Chavez was the most democratic country in the Western hemisphere.
Chavez’s visceral dislike for the war crimes committed during the presidency of George W. Bush was epitomised by his statement in the U.N. General Assembly comparing the U.S. President to the “devil”. “And it smells of sulphur even today,” he had mocked while speaking some hours after Bush had addressed the General Assembly. Chavez tried to repair relations with Bush’s successor. At the OAS summit in Trinidad in 2009, he went up to the new President and told him “I want to be your friend”. Chavez also presented Eduardo Galleano’s book Open Veins of Latin America: Four Centuries of the Pillage of the Continent to Obama.
Chavez went to Iraq in August 2000, two years after he was first elected to the presidency, crossing over into Iraq from Iran: he visited both the countries to discuss issues relating to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Chavez played a key role in strengthening OPEC, which had become dysfunctional after the Iran-Iraq war and then the first Gulf war. He was the first head of state to visit Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war and the U.S. had warned him against doing so. Chavez responded by reminding Washington that Venezuela was a sovereign country.
From then on, Chavez charted his independent course on the international stage, never hesitating to speak out on the causes that he considered just. He was among the few world leaders to criticise the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S.’ policies towards Iran. A visibly distraught President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was present at the funeral in Caracas. In a statement, the Iranian President said that Chavez was only symbolically dead. “I have no doubt he will come again along with all the righteous people and the Prophet Jesus.”
After the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza, Venezuela withdrew its ambassador to Israel. Chavez declared that henceforth diplomatic ties with Israel would be reduced to the lowest level and said that “there is no point in dealing” with that country. Chavez was a vociferous critic of the regime change in Libya sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the current attempts at something similar in Syria. This correspondent saw in the barrios in Caracas posters of Muammar Qaddafi along with literature explaining the circumstances leading to his overthrow.
Legacy in safe hands There is little doubt that Chavez’s legacy is in safe hands, at least for the time being. “I swear in the name of absolute loyalty to the Commandante Hugo Chavez that we will obey and defend the Bolivarian Constitution with the firm hand of the people determined to be free,” Maduro said while being sworn in as interim President. Maduro, who started his political career as a trade union leader, was one of Chavez’s closest confidants. His wife, Cilia Flores, was Chavez’s lawyer after his arrest for leading the failed military coup in 1992. She was the country’s Attorney General before resigning to help Maduro in the elections.
Maduro was by Chavez’s side when he began his quest for the presidency in the mid-1990s. He was the country’s Foreign Minister from 2006 until he was named the Vice-President in October 2012. This correspondent met Maduro in New Delhi in September last year. Like his mentor Chavez, he was articulate and outspoken in his views. He told Frontline that with the formation of CELAC, Latin America was poised to forge a new alliance that would build a “multipolar world, free from the influence of the Empire [the U.S.]”. The U.S., he averred, should not be allowed to use the “the trump card of war” against the rest of the world whenever it chose. He said that before Chavez came to power 15 years ago, the U.S. treated Venezuela like an “oil company”. He added that Venezuela was witnessing the making of “socialism of the 21st century”. Cuba was the model that first inspired revolutionaries in the region but Venezuela was building its own model of socialism. “It will be socialism with Venezuelan and Bolivarian characteristics,” Maduro said.
The government, the army, the ruling United Socialist Party all stand united behind Maduro’s leadership. But there are interested parties trying to sow discord. Just before Chavez’s demise, the Venezuelan government expelled two U.S. military attaches for meddling in the country’s internal affairs. In the second week of March, the U.S., in a “reciprocal action”, expelled two Venezuelan diplomats. The Western media have started spreading stories about the “pivotal” role the Venezuelan armed forces are playing in the current situation and claiming that Maduro’s future depends on their goodwill.
A special election is scheduled to be held on April 14 to elect a new President. Maduro, who will face the candidate of the united right wing opposition, Henrique Caprilles, is expected to win by a wide margin. A sympathy wave should help him to widen the lead that Chavez had registered over Caprilles. Chavez won the election in October last year with over 10 percentage points.
Caprilles has accused his rival of “using the body of a dead President to stage a campaign”. He insinuated that Chavez’s “death and funeral were all planned—Who knows when he died”. His latest charge came after there was a proposal to embalm the body of Chavez. “They want to use the President’s body for campaigning,” he said, an allegation that Maduro called “disgusting”. Caprilles and his “Justice First” Party were key participants in the abortive U.S.-backed coup against Chavez in 2002.
Polarised polity and other challenges Venezuela’s polity remains polarised, with a significant minority still unreconciled to Chavez’s social and economic programmes. There were no representatives from the main opposition parties at the funeral ceremony. In fact, there were celebrations and fireworks in some affluent areas in Caracas when Chavez’s death was announced. All the same, it is widely felt that few Venezuelans want a return to the old style of politics. Caprilles himself had pledged during the last election to continue with Chavez’s social policies if he was elected to the presidency.
Maduro, of course, will face a daunting task in the absence of the larger-than-life figure of Chavez. A lot has still to be fulfilled if Chavez’s dream of 21st century socialism has to become a reality. The ruling United Socialist Party that Chavez had forged contains many currents—the old leftist parties, a new Bolivarian class, businessmen, military interests and social movements. There could be a struggle for the control of state institutions and bigger slices of the national budget. The U.S. will be working overtime to sow seeds of disunity among the Chavistas to undermine the socialist revolution. Since 2002, Washington has channelled more than $100 million to opposition groups. Some Venezuelans are not ruling out a Syria-type scenario of encouraging a civil war to restore American influence in the region. The private sector still controls 70 per cent of the economy.
The country’s overall well-being rests predominantly on the performance of the hydrocarbon sector and the high price of oil in the international market. Venezuela has low debts, high petroleum reserves and high savings. It has proven oil reserves of over 500 billion barrels, the largest in the world. In the last 14 years, the government has invested in large industrial and agricultural projects, which will soon be paying dividends to the public at large. The state now gets as much revenue from domestic tax collection as it does from oil revenues.
The problems of corruption and crime, however, are yet to be tackled adequately. The opposition had highlighted these two issues with some success in last year’s elections. The high standards President Chavez adhered to personally on ethical issues do not everywhere mark the top levels of the government and the ruling party. Maduro has pledged to deepen Chavez’s social programmes and promised a vigorous drive against the rising crime rate.
The world will be watching.