There was a somewhat sombre sight at Hugo Chavez’s funeral last week; amongst the thousands of Venezuelans, 32 heads of states and many foreign dignitaries mourning the death of the Venezuelan president stood the two figures of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarusian President and Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Both men – who were part of the ‘honour guard’ flanking the coffin – were stark reminders of the unsavoury company that Chavez used to keep. Lukashenko, nicknamed the ‘last dictator of Europe’, has presided over the Eastern-European state for nearly 20 years in which he has terrorised all political opposition, rigged elections and clamp-downed on freedom of expression. The infamous Ahmadinejad and his regime is known for its corruption, its poor human rights records and – with an advancing nuclear programme – is a man who poses a real danger to peace in the Middle East.
These are not the only two, however; Chavez is known for having strong links with ex-Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, supporting Bashar al-Assad during the current Syrian civil war as well as making postive remarks about known dictators such as Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. It are these alliances and relationships with the world’s dictator and despots that has often lead to severe criticism of Hugo Chavez’s own increasingly autocratic regime – a view put forward in Samuel Gilonis’ recent rebuking of my own assertion that Chavez was not a dictator.
Yet, I maintain my stance on Chavez. As I show in my previous article, Chavez did have a growing lust for power, but showed only few elements of those unpleasant people he choose to befriend. Chavez was part of this club, but he wasn’t a member; amongst the world’s most brutal dictator, he had no place.
Undoubtedly though, such links only serve to tarnish Chave’z reputation; allying yourself with some of the most despicable ranks of humankind is difficult to get away from (as a side note, it is probably not wise to mix with actual tyrants if you keen to avoid the label yourself). Nonetheless, to disregard his positive legacy based on a ‘guilty-by-association’ argument – which Gilonis is keen to pursue – is both flawed and hypocritical.
After all, what of our allies? Britain and the US continue to support one of the world’s biggest human rights abusers with their propping up and arming of Saudi’s illiberal and theocratic House of Saud. Ex-PM Tony Blair enjoyed a personal relationship with Gaddafi while his second son, Saif, has been courted by the British Royal Family as well as other leading politicians. Blair has recently been working alongside Nursultan Nazarbayev, the corrupt and dictatorial leader of Kazakstan. Rumours even surfaced last year that Assad was nearly knighted under the ex-Labour Prime Minister.
Who then are we to pass judgement on others’ associations? Of course, these relationships were still wrong and unneeded. Yet, his achievements should not be diminished in the face of these foolish decisions – to do so is show a great deal of optional blindness.
Moreover, many of these ties were needed. Chavez understood from the onset that the implementation of many his policies were dependent on Venezuelan’s plentiful oil reserves. OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries was in disarray during much of the 1980s and 90s; no doubt unhelped by the actions of Iraq towards their OPEC allies, choosing to invade Iran in the First Persian Gulf War as well as an attempted annexation of Kuwait.
Chavez lead the efforts to re-establish the diplomatic connections between the OPEC nations, hosting the organisation’s first summit in 25 years in 2000. Chavez released the countries needed to come a agreement over output, slowing down oil production in order to stop the slumping price of oil prices; from $10 a barrel in 1998, oil prices have risen to over $100 a barrel today. Such a rise was helped dramatically by the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early-2000s – bringing the price far higher than those in OPEC targeted – but the policy was a resounding success nonetheless.
Hugo Chavez was a force for good, aiding Latin America, its people and most importantly – and – offering a real alternative to the neoliberal capitalist socioeconomic and politic thinking put forward by the West.
This was where most his initial contact with some of the world’s most unsavoury world leaders came from, but considering what he allowed him to achieve domestically – which I will come to in another piece – it was worth making pacts with the devils. For the West, OPEC and its member-states was an already unpopular; Chavez became a tarnished good.
Indeed, relations between Chavez and the West, especially the US, have always been strained. This reached a low in 2001 – one that would rarely pick up – when the he accused the US’s response to 9/11 as “fighting terror with terror”. In retrospect, with both Iraq and Afghanistan going through a decade of war, it is difficult to argue he was wrong.
This was all part of his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ – a doctrine inspired by the 19th century revolutionary Simon Bolivar. For foreign policy, this involved a combination of Latin American unity and anti-imperialist ideals towards the US
Gilonis is correct to suggest that Chavez’s anti-imperialism was, in fact, anti-Americanism, but surely in our US unipolar world of neo-liberalism, they amount to the same? Indeed, no wonder this led to a severally testing relationship with Latin America’s Northern neighbour; outside of the establishment of “anti-US ‘Axis of Unity'”, Chavez also had strong ties with Russia and denounced Israel (another questionable US ally) as a “genocidal state”.
It’s easy to forget, however, that much of this antagonistic relationship came from the US itself. Chavez’s vision of Latin American Unity and of ’21st Century Socialism’ were both something the US did not want to hear; Latin America, known as the US’s backyard, was always their sphere of influence; at a time when they were losing grip of global hegemonic power, the news of a popularly-elected anti-US – and socialist – leader was not what they wanted to hear.
Beyond doubt, Chavez was been considered a threat. Gilonis tries to defend Washington’s involvement in the 2002 coup as circumstantial, but it is an assessment that I find difficult to agree with considering the superpower’s history in the region alongside the fact they recognised the new regime immediately. When it failed, Chavez was able to use the coup to strengthen his support and power within Venezuela.
To claim Chavez is a dictator based on his associations is a fallacy; a red herring attempting to appeal to emotion rather than logic.
By reawakening the Leftist movement – always there, but continually put down during the Cold War – within the continent, the US were doubly displeased. 10 years after socialism had died, it had appeared stronger and more legitimately than every before right on their doorstep.
Chavez soon became a beacon to the rest of South America, inspiring a ‘pink tide’ across the region with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru all lurching town left-wing governments of varying shades. These men and women – such as Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Cristina Kirchner – were Chavez’s real allies; not the world’s despots he choose to embrace more publicly.
None more so than Castro and Cuba; they formed the basis of this socialist movement with Castro taking Chavez under his wing like a father figure. Cheap Venezuelan oil rescued Cuba’s flailing economy – artificially prolonging the Fidel Castro’s regime – which was repaid by sending thousands of doctors and nurses to help Chavez’s healthcare programme for the poor; just one of his many social projects.
More than that this link though, Chavez was desperate for South America to have its own identity and bloc against the US; regional integration was key to his mantra. He set-up the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) – as well as helped the formation of UNASUR and CELAC – as a economic rival to the FTAA. More recently, the creation of a regional currency (SUCRE) to replace the dollar as the medium of exchange in the area, thus decreasing US control of these economies and to increase stability of regional markets. He also set up a Latin American bank, television station and university. Considering Chavez’s ambitions were not limited to Venezuela, it is no surprise the US – and media – found it easy to oppose him so forcefully.
That is not to absolve Chavez of all blame; he has made a career of infamous anti-US rhetoric, some of which won his many admirers, especially during the Bush years. He branded Bush a “devil” and said he could “smell sulfur” when he took the podium at the United Nations after the ex-US President. Such comments were purely attempting to provoke; often, they went too far – the claim that the US infected Chavez with the cancer that would kill him was rhetoric dangerously nearing the paranoia of many of history’s dictators.
Yet, generally most of this was harmless – he was a showman, propelled to the forefront of anti-US sentiment which was long harboured around the world. The fact that he praised Noam Chomsky’s ‘Hegemony or Survival’ – a monograph criticising US foreign policy – showed, however, there were facts and belief behind his talk.
His legacy is mixed, no doubt. Chavez’s ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach to foreign affairs a reckless way to conduct himself as a popularly elected leader. Yet, to claim Chavez is a dictator based on his associations is a fallacy; a red herring attempting to appeal to emotion rather than logic.
If world leaders were judged by the sheer volume of corporate media vitriol and misinformation about their policies, Chávez would be in a class of his own.FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
Much of the world’s media has been part of this charade, attempting to create and exaggerate such links; Chavez has been compared to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin by Newsweek, an “active demagogue” by The Washington Post whilst Fox News branded the Venezuelan’s regime as “really Communism”. Indeed, US media has been criticised for their often harsh and extreme lampooning of Chavez’s human rights violations while little was mention of other nation’s more serious acts; in Colombia, for example, violent repression of the opposition went unmentioned by most.
It seems committing human rights offences is allowed; criticising the US is not. Yet, if you peer from this smokescreen of media smears and US-inspired myths, logic suggests contrary to what they say; that internationally, Hugo Chavez was a force for good, aiding Latin America, its people and most importantly – and – offering a real alternative to the neoliberal capitalist socioeconomic and politic thinking put forward by the West. It was exactly for this reason that he suffered such an wide array of misinformation and criticism.
“Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” were once the infamous words of Chavez’s good friend Castro. For Chavez, they will eventually ring true too.