Just as I was saying hello to South America -- with a chauffered car from Lima airport, to a cocktail party where the great and good of Peru's diplomatic corps were treated to an evening of light piano classics on the piano -- Hugo Chavez is leaving it. "Chavez says farewell to Venezuela" the news read on the tablet. The slums whizzed by, the best place to be in vis-a-vis slums, as the story scrolled on. Chavez had announced his cancer has returned, with new malignant growths, and that he was returning to Cuba for treatment.
Later, news reports would show him in a rare melancholy mood as he addressed the nation on TV. Nicolas Maduro, the VP, would not only be interim presidente, but also his designated successor. The report reminded me of my sluggish news sense. For years I'd been meaning to come to El Sur, to check out the Bolivaran revolution. Chavez has been in power for 15 years. Now, as I get here, he's checking out. I realise this is not the most important part of this event.
Whatever happens, it seems likely Chavez will not return to active power. The man who once said he would like to remain president until 2038, and who propelled his large frame through the day with 15 espressos (down from a high of 25, on Cuban doctors' orders), will either die or move to the background. His many detractors hope an era will pass with him. More likely, it will be the end of the first part of a wider process of change that has put the continent, improbably, at the forefront of the world.
Coming to power electorally in 1999, after a failed coup attempt in 1992 (he was jailed and then pardoned), Chavez was the most politically motivated of a group of nationalist and populist army officers who had arisen in the 1980s. In 1999, he promised a "third-way" style of southern social democracy. Through the 2000s he has moved leftward, promising a type of 21st-century socialism, a move made possible by the huge rise in demand for oil, as developing countries come on line.
He has had two great and undeniable successes in that goal: improving the conditions of the Venezuelan poor, and facilitating the success of other leftist South American movements, in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. World Bank data shows those living below the poverty line has fallen from 60% to 25%, household consumption has risen from $2000 annually to $3500, while domestic food production has doubled. Extreme poverty has fallen to 6%, up at around 40% during the previous era. In overall social services, spending went from 8% to 20% of GDP.
In healthcare, the "barrio adentro" system has created a nationwide network of local free healthcare centres, many staffed by Cuban doctors, and raised primary healthcare access from 20% to 95% today, with doctor access tripling from 20 per 100,000 to 60. The Chavez governments also increased basic nutrition with a series of subsidised supermarkets, allowing increased access to animal protein for millions, and literacy is approaching 100% up from 86%.
Control of a petrostate has also allowed Chavez to help spark a "Bolivaran revolution" across the region, helping Left and populist parties to contest the grip of local capital on broadcasting and electioneering. Development loans have followed without the "neoliberal strings attached" of the International Monetary Fund.
"It's a measure of how the Venezuelan people rate Chavez's achievements that the crime wave blunted but did not destroy his electoral appeal."
Yet there have been major costs in the Chavez model as well, related to this focus on basic life improvement for the mass of the population. In particular, there's been an underinvestment in infrastructure, and a lack of attention paid to manufacturing decline, some of it due to Chavez's capricious style. Some of the more lurid examples have been a measure of success -- shortages in food production have not kept pace with the increased demand as poverty has fallen, and the same goes for power blackouts. Anti-Chavez media have gleefully reported a decline in non-oil exports, and manufacturing -- from 18% to 14%, a far smaller drop than in western nations over the past decade, and partly explained by the oil price rise, which has crowded out other areas.
The greatest failing has been the explosion of crime. Caracas has always been one of the most violent cities in a violent region. The whole region of Central America and upper South America has seen an explosion of crime in recent years, a product of the global drugs conveyer belt, the fast-track deportation of Latino gang leaders from the US to their home country, and to ever-higher levels of police corruption. In Venezuela the levels are through the roof -- 60 murders per 100,000 population, or 60 murders each weekend, every weekend -- and some blame the militaristic rhetoric of Chavez, about being soldiers in a class war (even though the violence is largely intra-poor), and the spread of weapons to defence groups after an attempted and failed 2002 coup, eagerly abetted by the US.
Such violence, paradoxically, is often a result of political progress -- as for example in South Africa. Once people cease to be a powerless oppressed mass, the worst elements will take advantage. It's a measure of how the Venezuelan people rate Chavez's achievements that the crime wave blunted but did not destroy his electoral appeal.
But to read the mainstream Western press, you would find the appeal of Chavez peculiar. There's only two topics that occupy Venezuela-watchers: the crime wave, and the alleged assault on democracy. The crime wave is held to be uniquely Chavezist -- even though other countries such as El Salvador are afflicted with similar homicide rates -- and provides a fetish object for endless articles on the failure of Chavismo.
The assault on democracy has been equally oversimplified. Observer after observer has established that the half-dozen elections Chavez has participated in have been fairly and efficiently conducted -- more so than the ramshackle procedure of the US, for example -- and other examples are equally one-sided. In 2007, for example, the license of TV network RCTV was removed, prompting a global protest. Yet the station had gleefully supported the illegal 2002 coup, to the point of urging people into the streets. Even then its license was not suspended, as it would have been in most countries -- it was simply refused a renewal.
Nevertheless there has been a gradual takeover of many public institutions by the Chavez forces, from judiciary to media, by fair means and foul, and Western leftists have sometimes been slow to criticise the moves, which have increased in the last few years, as economic problems of output have increased.
Yet they could be forgiven for holding the line, since, for the mainstream press, such moves are the only story about Venezuela. A compliant elite global media has become a feedback loop, in which right-wing editors thin within the fading neoliberal consensus and are served by journalists with little knowledge of the region, its bloody political history, or any sense of outrage at the vast and, until recently, seemingly immovable poverty that has possessed the region since colonisation. The process produces some grimly amusing contradictions.
Thus The Wall Street Journal
's news section, which has to convey accurate information, for the benefit of subscribers who need such to make money, hews a reasonably fair line, while its opinion section features the whacky Cold War rambling of Mary Anastasia O'Grady, a mouthpiece for the old latifundia elite if ever there was one. The Economist
, which combines commentary and opinion in its pieces, doesn't know what to think. Discrediting Chavez began to discredit the magazine itself, as social improvements became too large to be ignored, and they were thus relegated to a "despite" sentence: "despite the reduction in poverty ..."; "despite increased literacy ..."; "despite people not dying in the street like dogs ...".
Throughout they have been unable to credit Chavez or any leftist with anything other than wanting to "win the votes of the poor". To what purpose exactly, if not to improve their lot. In the end, such cynicism is mere lack of imagination, or even simply of information. One example sticks out among many: for several years the Venezuelan state oil company offered free heating oil to the poor of Maine and New Hampshire. The move was universally portrayed as a cheap publicity-grab on Chavez's part. In fact, the governors of both states had asked all nine oil companies operating in the area -- eight US, one Venezuelan -- to help out. All eight US companies refused. It was not Venezuelan propaganda of the deed, but US American cruelty and indifference, that lay at the root of Ugo's press bonanza -- and the notion that it might have been done out of simple social solidarity found no mention at all.
Despite, despite, despite ... It captures the dim mindset of western reportage in a word. It's a way of speeding past the slums in the other direction, forever on the way to the airport, to the centres of the global elite. It will be doubled-down on when Chavez eventually joins Simón Bolívar, who once said that governing South America was like "ploughing the sea". Despite his fealty to the continent's liberator, Chavez has set out to prove him wrong.
The poor cannot be unfed, their children untaught, their illnesses detreated. Nor can the political complexion of South America -- a standing resistance to neoliberalism -- be wished away, or contained to this continent. Whatever changes Venezuela will have to make after his passing, the country has already changed the world, and changed the life-chances of millions which is what matters most. Despite, despite, despite ...