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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 17, April 13, 2013

Hugo Chavez — A Tumultuous Life comes to a Painful End

Sunday 14 April 2013, by Sheel Bhadra Kumar


Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias, President of Venezuela, battling with prolonged cancer, died on March 5, 2013 at the age of 58. He was an epic figure who symbolised the radical transfor-mation of Latin America. He was a defining personality in the western hemisphere’s politics for 14 years. The deep emotional outpouring that followed the death of the Venezuelan President speaks volumes about his popularity and public support. In an era of crony-capitalism, Chavez was someone we will always remember as an anti-imperialist and staunch critic of neo-liberalism. He had a passionate support among the poor, but business leaders and wealthy Venezuelans had a strong grudge against him. His untimely death is indeed a big blow to Venezuela, Latin America and the world. A gifted orator, having immense conviction in his ideology, he possessed an extraordinary sense of destiny. He championed to galvanise the Latin American Left and defied US imperialism with his full-throated espousal of causes that directly hurt Washington’s interests.

Hugo Chavez, a charismatic hero and a populist leader, was born on July 28, 1954 in the small provincial town of Sabaneta at the western edge of the vast plain known as Ilanos. His parents were teachers by profession, but a passion for baseball led young Hugo to enroll in the military academy at the age of 17. He studied at the Venezuela Academy of Military Sciences for five years, from1971 to 1975. As a young military officer, he became disillusioned with the armed forces and with the system they served. Corruption and human rights violations led him to sympathise more with the guerrillas he was supposed to combat. Thus anguish and disillusionment led him to form his own revolutionary organisation in 1982; it was known as the Revolutionary Bolivarian Move-ment-200 [MBR-200]. It was a secretive cell within the military, inspired by the visionary Simon Boliver. His elder brother Adam, a radical revolutionary professor, put him in touch with the guerrilla leaders. He along with the under-ground guerrilla leaders seized military bases. But Chavez failed to take over the palace of President Carlos Perez. He along with other plotters were sentenced to lengthy jail terms. But President Carlos Perez was impeached and his successor, Rafael Caldera, pardoned the plotters and ordered the cases against them to be dropped.

Now Chavez decided to take the electoral route. In 1997, he founded the Fifth Republic Movement which pledged social and economic reforms. In the presidential election of 1998, Hugo stood for the office of the President with the promise of sweeping aside the old order, rewriting the Constitution and eliminating corruption. Riding a wave of disgust with politics, he won the presidential election with 56 per cent of votes and strode to power. In 1999, he launched Pan Bolivar, a massive social welfare programme, adopted a new Constitution and changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Fresh elections in 2000, under the new Constitution, consolidated Chavez’s grip on power. Gradually, he placed the state institutions under his personal control. The new Constitution was approved by referen-dum in December 1999 and that extended the presidential term to six years and allowed immediate re-election. The Senate was abolished, role of armed forces expanded and new moral and electoral branches of the government created. In 2002, Chavez survived an attempted coup to overthrow him from the presidency but his supporters and sympathisers took to the streets bringing him back to the presidency. Again in 2006, he was re-elected the President with 63 per cent of votes.

In 2009, a referendum empowered Chavez to run for the presidential office indefinitely abolishing the two-term limit. In June 2011, Chavez gave a televised address from Cuba that he was recovering from an operation to remove a cancerous tumour. In July last year he declared himself fit just three months before the presi-dential election which he won securing himself another six years in office with 55 per cent of votes. Chavez returned to Cuba in December 2012 for cancer treatment naming Vice-President Nicolas Maduro as his heir apparent. In February 2013, he went back to Cuba but could not survive. On March 5, 2013, a massive cardiac arrest ended his long battle with cancer. He was to be sworn in on January 10, 2013, but he was destined to depart without taking oath to the presidency of Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez led a tumultuous political life of 14 years as the Venezuelan leader that shook the world. He transformed the lives of millions in Venezuela and fostered a new spirit of solidarity across Latin America. He removed corrupt military officers and started a national reform programme. Chavez nationalised the main oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, putting the profit into very effective social programmes; social spending increased by 61 per cent between 2000 and 2001. Venzuela has the region’s lowest level of inequality. Poverty is down by 71 per cent in 1996 to 21 now, and extreme poverty is down from 40 per cent to 7.3 per cent. The benefits of social programmes have reached 20 million people and 2.1 million have senior citizens’ pensions, a seven-fold increase under Chavez. Venezuela has cut food imports from 90 per cent to 30 per cent of its consumption. Child mortality has declined. Mal-nutrition has been controlled among children. Ninetysix per cent of the population have access to clean water, with school attendance at 85 per cent and one out of three Venezuelans enrolled in free education upto and including university. During Chavez’s rule availability of doctors has increased. Soon after assuming office, Chavez accepted the services of Cuban doctors in ex-change for oil supplies to a country victimised by the US sanctions for forty years. He started negotiating with foreign companies which had been making colossal sums out of the world’s greatest known hydrocarbon reserves while paying a pittance in royalties. Chavez put the earned revenues to good use raising social spending by over 60 per cent to 772 billion dollars in a decade reducing extreme poverty. In 2006, he declared that socialism was the only way forward. He announced that the path his country had taken was 21st century socialism.

The US had long dominated Latin America through brutal dictatorships and oligarchical democracies. Latin America was regarded as a region of US influence by the US Administration. Its foreign and national policies were dictated and directed by US influence. But Chavez’s rise to power changed the dialectics and dynamics of Latin American politics. Ignited by the spark of democratic revolution against centuries of oppression and exploitation in Venezuela and Latin America, Chavez did everything to save his country from the neo-colonial rule of the US. He along with the governments of Fidel Castro of Cuba, Evo Morals in Bolivia, Rafel Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua challenged US hegemony. They started describing the US policy as imperialist and hegemonistic. Hugo was a prominent adversary of the US foreign policy, neo-liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism. He adopted such a policy which kept oil reserves within Latin America. He propagated a clean political programme for Pan-Latin American transformation. He challenged the US by saying that Venezuela was no longer an oil colony. He wanted to change the World Bank and IMF with an international humanitarian bank based on genuine co-operation. In 2011, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States was created to assert the Latin American countries’ sovereignty. A lifelong critic of the US and its politics, Chavez had once called the US President Bush a donkey and a devil.

Chavez was, however, no doctrinaire leader. And though a socialist, his model included a respect for even private property. His socialism partly derived from the work of Heinz Dieterich Steffan. One of weaknesses of the Chavez model was the central role the President himself played in the system. But through his dominant and assertive position, he provided better life which millions of Venezuelans enjoy today. Under Chavez, Venezuela made great strides.

As is the case after every great leader’s demise, succession is deeply painful. Venezuela needs to exercise caution. It is a time for restraint as the US and its allies may try to turn the clock back. Venezuela has indeed lost an illustrious son and the world a revolutionary leader. It is interesting to note that Mahatma Gandhi was more of a role model for Chavez than Marx. He was a flagbearer of 21st century socialism and anti-imperialism. The US called him a dictator or demagogue but he proved that his rule was far better than a failed democracy. Chavez’s 14-year rule is a lesson for many nations across the world, including India.

Dr Sheel Bhadra Kumar is an Associate Professor of Political Science posted at the Government P.G. College, Mahasamund in Chhattisgarh.

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