Sam Noumoff


Much has been written about Hugo Chavez in recognition of his devoted commitment, not only to Venezuelans, but to all those fighting against imperialism and exploitation. Affectionately known as El Comandante, Chavez reminds us how powerfully important leadership is in any struggle. It is not leadership, in the Latin American context of the Caudillo, but rather that disenfranchised masses require a skillful and articulate spokesperson to mobilize their voice. This they found in a military officer, who while he taught at the Military Academy found his own platform for his early political career and an audience who echoed his own reality. As it has turned out, Hugo Chavez, as a Paratrooper officer spent two years in prison built his own network within the military, which aided him in any blocking and coup attempts from within the military after founding his 5th Republic Movement.


When he first cameto  public attention, I expressed my serious doubt about military socialists, and at the time pointed to Ratsiraka in Madagascar and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. Events obviously proved me wrong.


In the international arena, while few clapped during his famous U.N. speech, many of the delegates smiled and there was rousing applause when he ended. Even during the shoe thumping days of Nikita Khrushchev no one mocked the US President with as much bile as when Chavez said he still smelt the aroma of sulphur left from the previous day by President George W. Bush, who he called the devil.  His alliance with Cuba established a symbiotic relationship, whereby he traded oil for medical and other technical personnel for serving the barrios, and adapting the Cuban poder poular (people’s power) model in the construction of the Bolivarian Circles, of local power. While there were no doubt occasional conflicts between central authority and local ones, Chavez relied fundamentally on local, organized citizens to make decisions dictated by local priorities. On the issue confronted by his South American colleagues, he bailed out Argentina and Brazil from the clutches of the IMF and World Bank, while initiating a regional bank aimed at buffering the region from the dictates on international capital. Chavez came to quickly realise that for every $ in oil paid by the U.S. $1.24 was extracted from the oil producing country. As well as the fact that only 4% interest was earned by purchasing U.S. debt, while 16% interest was charged when borrowing that money back. One of his early decisions was to withdraw $20 billion from U.S. Treasury paper. While not a member of the BRIC {Brazil-Russia-India-China club his policies perfectly conformed to their agenda, and his friendship with Iran and China being particularly noteworthy. Pursuit of national political and economic sovereignty and extrication from rentier status and employing national wealth for national development remained central to his agenda. While mocked by his adversaries as a stunt, it was nonetheless comforting for poor people in New York and Boston, as well as other US cities, when Chavez offered winter heating oil at half-price to those who fall within the cracks in the “richest country on earth”.


Domestically, Chavez nationalized the petroleum industry,   recuperating state control over the oil fields in the Orinoco Belt, re-nationalization of the telecommunications company and six electricity companies turning the mega profits from international oil, to the poor of the country. Education, health, local infrastructure, poverty alleviation, state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, and land reform were pillars of his programme. 300,000 families were given land at the reform’s inception.


Between 1998, when he was first elected, to 2013 when he died in office, people living in poverty dropped from 43 percent of the population to 27 percent. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.8 percent of the population to 7 percent. According to UNESCO, illiteracy has been eliminated. Chavez also reduced childhood malnutrition, and initiated pensions for the elderly.


Today, according to its Gini Coefficient, Venezuela has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent.  Proportionally, Venezuela is number two in Latin America for the number of university students. Infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000. Chavez’s government increased the number of health clinics by 169.6 percent, and hands out free food to 5 million Venezuelans.


Venezuela’s debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is lower than that of the United States or Europe.


Proof of his popular support can not only be measured by his repeated electoral success, but at the time of the coup in 2002, led by the moneyed oligarchs who took him prisoner and abolished the governing structures. He was ferried by helicopter to an island off the coast, expecting to be dumped in the South Atlantic, as had previously happened in Argentina under the direction of Operation Condor, the US plan for counter revolution in the Hemisphere. When news began circulating, millions of Venezuelans went into the street demanding his release and it became clear to the coup leaders that unless he was returned to the Presidential palace, the country would quickly become ungovernable. Some have suggested that it was his Christian commitment to forgiveness that resulted in his failure to execute the coup leaders. I suggest it was in part his belief that the balance have forces had not yet sufficiently evolved to engage in such action, as well as personal prison experience.


Chavez has left but Chavismo lives.

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