The legacy of President Hugo Chavez

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"We spoke for over an hour. He said he was happy to finally meet someone Bush hated more than him."

- Michael Moore

There are few moments in life when one's sense of irony completely melts. Such was my feeling when I heard that Hugo Chávez had succumbed to cancer; I have followed his career closely and the one quality that characterized him was his resilience. In 1992 he attempted a military coup but was captured and put into prison. He was eventually released on a political amnesty and in 1998 he ran for President and surprisingly won with 56 per cent of the vote. In 2002 he survived an opposition coup -- well detailed in the documentary The Revolution will not be Televised. He then persisted through a protracted oil strike later that year and a recall referendum two years later. In the 2006 election he won with 60 per cent of the vote and in 2013 he again triumphed with numbers identical to his first victory in 1998.

Overall, from 1999-2012 Chávez was victorious in 13 of 14 elections or referenda. By this point I had assumed that the President would weather cancer with the same invulnerability by which he had withstood more than a decade of unrelenting attacks from the Venezuelan opposition and the mainstream media.

I had the opportunity to see Chávez speak a number of times. He was always fully committed to social justice but also -- surprisingly -- perennially jovial. My favourite moment was in an arena in Belém, the capital city of the Brazilian Amazon, in January 2009 with 300 other spectators. The leaders of Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela held a "dialogue with social movements" and later that evening President Lula joined Correa, Lugo, Morales, and Chávez -- dressed in his familiar red shirt -- at an ecstatic event organized by the Brazilian Workers' Party at the Hangar -- an old airplane building that had been converted into a state-of-the-art auditorium. Both the first and second events were electrifying occasions with rapt, chanting crowds. The first event ended with all of the Presidents singing the beautiful, celebrated "Hasta Siempre"-- a song praising the heroism of Che Guevara. The ballad became all the more poignant when Aleida Guevara, the daughter of the 20th century's most famous revolutionary, stepped out of the audience, came onto the stage, put her arm around Chavez, and sang with the leaders. Who could have known that four years later the truculent figure in red, overflowing with life, would be the one whose memory the crowds would honour?

There are numerous criticisms to be made of President Chávez and a number of thoughtful writers from all sides of the political spectrum have enumerated them in my co-edited book The Revolution in Venezuela: social and political change under Chávez (Harvard University Press 2011). As well, if one needs additional criticism, though less sufficiently researched, one need only read any article in the Wall Street Journal written about the country over the past 12 years. Statistically speaking, Chávez's achievements, as recounted by David Sirota in Salon and detailed by the U.K. Guardian and the World Bank, are substantial: from 1999-2009 Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product doubled while infant mortality and unemployment were cut in half, extreme poverty -- that is people living on less than a dollar day -- was reduced from 23.4 per cent to 8.5 per cent. Today Venezuela has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America. As well, statistics compiled by the Center for Economic Policy Research indicate that inflation was at 60 per cent in 1999 and is currently at 18 per cent, social spending as a percentage of GDP doubled from 1999 to the present, net enrollment in pre-primary and secondary school increased by almost 50 per cent, graduation from higher education improved from 750,000 students per year to over 2 million currently and the number receiving pensions also increased from 750,000 in 1999 to 2 million. Today, Venezuela has also the lowest rate of inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, in Latin America. The President demonstrated that state-driven economic redistribution was more socially beneficial than the deregulation and privatization favoured by the conservative elite. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons that their media wrote about him with such vehement bias.

Chávez will not be remembered simply as a politician who alleviated his country's rate of poverty. Instead he will be reminisced as a man, and perhaps already as a legend, who empowered the poor, the poor from which he arose, to organize themselves, thus setting the stage for decades of human development. He created a social democracy that combined an overly centralized state with participatory democracy and mass mobilization. More importantly he demonstrated history's most significant political truth, that even in the most dire circumstances movements and leaders always emerge, to struggle on behalf of what the anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon once called "the wretched of the earth." Because of Chávez, destitution and disparity were substantially reduced in Venezuela and for this reason the marginalized around the world will commemorate him as a mythic, almost invulnerable leader.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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