Hugo Chavez, who just won reelection as president of Venezuela, matters, and Americans (North Americans, that is) need to understand why.
Hope among Latinos that their countries could emerge from under the thumbs of U.S. proxy dictatorships in the 1960s was dashed by the murderous, continent-wide Pinochet-led counter-revolution in the 1970s. As Pinochet and his fellow dictators were removed from power, Washington signaled that it would continue pursuing policies designed to line the pockets of U.S. corporations by bailing out Wall St. banks after the Mexican peso crisis in 1984 (yeah, the canary-in-the-mine Wall St. bailout, for all you Americans who don’t think Latin American pigeons come home to roost) rather than helping Mexicans, who were next hit by NAFTA, and then by the U.S. appetite for illegal drugs. That is the context in which must be seen Hugo Chavez’ reelection as leader of Latin American Populism and Socialism (I mean, “Venezuela”).
It may be true, as the pro-corporate U.S. mass media has been reiterating, that Chavez has failed to give Venezuela a strong economy; the same is obviously true of both Obama and Bush before him. But there is of course a distinction – whatever his skill, Chavez at least has been putting the emphasis on helping the poor, whereas Bush scorned the poor and Obama is only slightly less dismissive as he continues protecting Wall St. billionaires. It may also be true that crime is on the rise in Venezuela, but the same can, once more, be said of the U.S. Again, there is a distinction: the Venezuelan crime U.S. media are pointing to is crime among the poor; the U.S. crime wave is among the billionaires who have been busily defrauding everyone else for a decade now and continue to receive a “stay out of jail free card” from their man in the White House. And then there is one more little point: given the lack of support by the world’s only superpower for Chavez’ efforts to bring good governance to his small country whose people (excepting the rich) had never had more than an effervescent whiff of democracy until his election, North Americans really have no grounds for criticizing his failure to achieve more. Compared to the two U.S. presidents who held office during the Chavez years, the man does not look all that bad.
My point is not to whitewash what may well be a failing Chavez Administration but to suggest that his record is really not the major issue. The major issue, as the pro-corporation U.S. media also like to point out (albeit not in exactly the honest historical context I am trying to provide here), is that Chavez is leading a reaction, in essence, to the Pinochet counter-revolution. That is why Chavez’ reelection is of historical significance.
If Chavez and the other new leaders in Latin America who profess to care about their people rather than the rich can manage to resist the lure of abusing power for personal gain while enhancing both social justice and economic performance, then the countries of Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru (and dare I include Brazil?) now have the opportunity to change history. Led by Europeans, Americans, and Chinese, the world economy is doing rather badly. Because of historical bad governance by rich Latin proxy rulers paying court to Washington and U.S. corporate elites, Latin America has long been a backwater of the global economy. To be blunt, at the moment the world economy needs all the help it can get. Let us hope that Latin reformers can enable Latin America finally to emerge on the world scene in a way that will make a contribution both to global justice and the global economy. We need the help, and Latin Americans deserve this chance.