Understanding Hugo Chávez’s Legacy
In early December 2001, I was searching through my files looking for a column topic. At the time I was writing on foreign policy for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the town’s two dailies. A back page clip I had filed and forgotten caught my attention: on Nov. 7 the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the U.S. State Department had convened a two-day meeting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Venezuela. My first thought was, “Uh, oh.”
I knew something about those kinds of meetings. There was one in 1953 just before the CIA and British intelligence engineered the coup in Iran that put the despicable Shah into power. Same thing for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.
Hugo Chávez had reaped the ire of the Bush administration when, during a speech condemning the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he asked if bombing Afghanistan in retaliation was a good idea? Hugo Chávez called it “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” not a very good choice of words, but, in retrospect, spot on. The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraqi War have been utterly disastrous for the U.S. and visited widespread terror on the populations of both countries. Upwards of a million Iraqis died as a direct and indirect effect of the war, five million were turned into refugees, and the bloodshed is far from over. Much the same—albeit on a smaller scale—is happening to the Afghans.
Would that we had paid the man some attention. But for the Bush administration, Chávez’s statement presented an opportunity to rid itself of a troublesome voice. In came the White House’s Latin America “A Team.”
The top gun in that odious outfit was Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and former Reagan Administration point man for the 1981-87 Contra War against Nicaragua.
The General Accounting Office had nailed Reich during the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal for “prohibited covert propaganda,” planting false stories and opinion pieces in newspapers. A Cuban exile, Reich had helped spring Orlando Bosch in 1987 from a Venezuelan prison where Bosch was in jail for bombing a civilian Cuban airliner and killing 73 people. Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, also a Cuban exile and former chief of staff for the Contras, was the Pentagon side of the team.
While Reich met with civilian opponents of Chávez and conservative businessman Pedro Carmona, Pardo-Maurer huddled with military leaders, including Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon. Carmona and Rincon would play a key role in the April 11, 2002 coup against Chávez. The National Endowment for Democracy and United States Agency for International Development were also supporting Chávez’s opponents with money and advice, and both organizations have long histories of subversion and covert operations.
I had no special information about the possibility of a coup but it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that the armies of the night were on the move. So I wrote a column titled “Coup in the Wind” that laid out the meetings, identified the actors, and reminded readers that the U.S. has a long and sordid history of organizing and supporting coups in Latin America.
A little more than three and a half months later, the plotters struck, arrested Chávez, suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the National Election Commission, and fired provincial governors. We had seen this all before, and I flinched at what I thought would inevitably follow: executions, death squads, “disappeared” opponents, smashed unions, and a cowed population. But April 11, 2002, was not 1954 in Guatemala, 1964 in Brazil, 1973 in Chile, or 1976 in Argentina. Chávez had lifted millions of people out of poverty, opened schools, increased literacy, and tackled malnutrition. In vast numbers those people rose up, and, for the first time in Latin American history, a coup was overturned.
Three days after Chávez was returned to office, Martha Honey at Foreign Policy In Focus sent me an email saying she liked the coup column and would I consider writing a follow-up for the think tank? I knew all about Martha Honey and her husband, Tony Avirgan. As reporters for the Costa Rican Tico Times, they had uncovered much of the Iran-Contra plot and were legends among those of us in the alternative press. I also knew about FPIF. It is hard to write sensible things about U.S. foreign policy without it. So I did a piece called “Anatomy of a Coup,” detailing U.S. support for the plotters. Since then I have written over 200 columns, so in a way, it was Hugo Chávez that landed me at FPIF.
Chávez became the president of a country where 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. It was a country where two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and where the gap between rich and poor was among the widest on the continent.
Today, according to the 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. Illiteracy has been eliminated and, 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, the same as it is for Black Americans. Chávez’s government increased the number of health clinics by 169.6 percent, and hands out free food to five million Venezuelans. Take a moment to read “The Achievements of Hugo Chávez” by public health experts Carles Muntaner, Joan Benach, and sociologist Maria Paez Victor in CounterPunch.
Comparing the man’s accomplishments to his U.S. obits was like taking a trip through Alice’s looking glass. Virtually none of the information about poverty and illiteracy was included, and when it was grudgingly admitted that he did have programs for the poor, it was “balanced” with claims of soaring debts, widespread shortages, rampant crime, economic chaos, and “authoritarianism.”
Venezuela’s debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is lower than that of the U.S. and Europe. Inflation has fallen to a four-year low. There is crime, but neighboring Colombia is far more dangerous, particularly if you happen to be a trade unionist. And more people in Venezuela are eating better than they have ever eaten in the history of the country. Over the past decade, growth has averaged 4. 3 percent, and joblessness dropped from 11.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Americans would kill for those figures.
As for being an “authoritarian,” most the country’s media is venomously anti-Chávez and publishes regularly, and his opponents hold weekly rallies and protests. Want to try that in U.S. ally Honduras (or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, etc.)?
The old Venezuelan elites—aided by the U.S.—will now attempt to turn the clock back to 1997, the year before Chávez took over. But that will not be easy. Quite literally millions of people have been brought into the democratic process and they will not cede power without a fight. Once people have better housing, schools, nutrition, jobs, and health care, it is very difficult to take those things away. Hugo Chávez handed a better life to the vast majority of Venezuelans, and, as they demonstrated in April 2002, they are perfectly able to defend those gains.
“Charismatic and idiosyncratic, capable of building friendships. Communicating to the masses as few other leaders ever have, Mr. Chávez will be missed,” is the way former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it. He will be missed, indeed.