Who will defy the US now?
Latin America lost its most controversial leader in recent years with the passing away of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, on March 5. Most of his people will remember him as the ultimate voice of the poor and the downtrodden.
It was his ardent support for his country’s long neglected underprivileged classes that brought him such popularity. He focused on implementing socialist reforms, creating a new Constitution and participatory communal councils, nationalizing several key industries, and increasing government funding for healthcare and education.
But he will be remembered most for his success in reducing poverty significantly in his country. According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty decreased from 23 to 9, while poverty dropped from 46 to 29 percent under his presidency. Ruling a country that has some of the largest oil and natural gas resources in the world undoubtedly helped him. But he believed in – or was shrewd enough to – allocate a sizeable proportion of his country’s oil revenue to social programs and subsidies.
Ironically, Chavez’s political life began in the 1980s with the founding of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 as a disillusioned military officer. He later led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992 while he was still a lieutenant colonel. He was released after two years in prison. Changing his ways, he established the social democratic Fifth Republic Movement and was ultimately elected president in late 1998. Then, he gradually expanded and consolidated his power by changing the Constitution, limiting the judiciary, nationalizing the oil sector and increasing his popularity with land reform programs, nationalization policies and the establishment of worker-managed cooperatives. He was re-elected for the fourth time in October 2012.
His legacy is rather divisive, both at home and abroad. The Venezuelan economy is in bad shape once again. With recent devaluation, the inflation rate increased to 22 percent and economic growth has slowed down. Violence and polarization has increased. His successors will struggle to decide whether to continue his revolution with much problematic economic figures or follow the more moderate but sustainable example of Brazil under the presidencies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
Chavez was an important figure in international politics. A new socialist trend emerged in Latin America with him and Lula. He played a crucial role in uniting the region under various international organizations. To show his loyalty, he shared Venezuelan oil with neighboring countries through low prices or long-term loans. He tried to play the oil card with the United States, too, though the U.S. is still the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil. He created a close, if somewhat strange, relationship with Iran, mainly to annoy the U.S.
Despite all the controversy about his legacy, he will be remembered as one of the leading figures of Latin America in our time. With his dedicated opposition to U.S. leadership of the world, Chavez has already reserved his place in the history books. I am sure political observers will never forget his U.N. speech in September 2006, when, taking the stage a day after George W. Bush, pronounced him as “the devil [that] came here yesterday, … talking as if he owned the world, [trying] to preserve the pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.”
Citing from Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival,” he explained that “the American empire is doing all it can to consolidate its system of domination. And we cannot allow them to do that. We cannot allow world dictatorship to be consolidated.”
Now that he has passed away, I wonder who will defy the U.S. now.