Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is dead, and his passing is a great loss for the majority of Venezuelans, who adored him; for the Latin American left, which he resuscitated; and for many leftwing internationalists, whom he inspired.
Washington liked to refer to him as dictatorial, but he was elected by his own people four times, most recently in October, when he won 55 percent of the vote.
He did more for the non-ruling class in Venezuela than any other president before him. He reduced poverty from 80 percent to 20 percent, he instituted land reform on a scale never before imagined, and he wiped out illiteracy.
On the international stage, he liked to poke his fingers in Washington's eyes, and especially, in the eyes of George W. Bush, whom he denounced colorfully from the podium at the United Nations in 2006.
"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez said, referring to Bush's speech there. "And it smells of sulfur still today." Diplomats applauded and laughed. Chavez went on to say that Bush had spoken "as if he owned the world," which also struck a chord. Chavez opposed the U.S. war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and U.S. support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
For the U.S. government, Chavez was an upstart, a mini-Castro. In 2002, the United States backed a coup against Chavez, who was captured for 24 hours but managed to talk his military captors down. They released him, and he resumed office, but in the interim, the State Department praised the coup, and the New York Times and the Washington Post dutifully followed suit on their editorial pages.
Chavez led the Latin American left turn, with Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay following his lead. He tried to unite Latin American countries in a southern common market called Mercosur, and he used the oil wealth of Venezuela as a tool to pry the IMF's hands off the continent. He was an avid reader of leftwing intellectuals, often citing Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano.
But he was not without his faults. He restricted press freedoms. He cozied up to Ahmedinejad in Iran. And he condoned some anti-Semitic acts in Venezuela, which made me cringe.
Now he is gone, and the sharks will no doubt be circling. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are smiling. And the CIA is likely preparing to make a move.
For the Venezuelan majority, their hero has fallen. And now is a time not only for mourning but for worrying.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "The Supreme Court's Push to Lift Campaign Limits."
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