Hugo Rafael Chàvez Frias has died.
The Venezuelan President, a fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in his native country and crusaded against the USA's imperial influence, passed away on March 5.
During more than 14 years in office, Chávez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. Surely, the American media will portray him as a vile individual who polarized Venezuelans, palled around with dictators, maintained ties to communist Russia, and, the ultimate insult: befriended El Comandante Fidel Castro -- eternal thorn in Americans' egos. Multiple U.S. Administrations rued Chavez' help lent to follow South American nations to topple U.S.-friendly puppet governments.
Some enlightened observers might wonder why the man the media vilifies is showered with love and adulation despite his perceived transgressions. While I cannot speak for the Venezuelan people, I have some theories as to why Hugo Chávez means so much to millions of world citizens.
In 1498, Christopher Columbus sailed along the eastern coast of Venezuela on his third voyage. Like Canada, the European transitioned from explorers to settlers and oppressors. The Spanish and the German colonizers enslaved the indigenous people, harvested all the pearls, pillaged any resources they could find (namely gold), and made the Spanish Empire abundantly rich. African slaves were imported to keep the gold looting going.
Three-hundred years on, Simón Bolivar inspired the entire continent when he led a campaign to rid South America of its colonial plunderers. By the 1980s, successive military regimes and undemocratic leaders had kept the majority of Venezuelans outside the umbrella of socio-economic prosperity. An Apartheid-flavoured society was firmly in place, with the rich elite in the seat of power while the rest of the population lived sparely. Hugo Chávez became a national voice for the denunciation of corruption and the structural paradigm that was quite unfair, to put it mildly.
"Let them eat cake." -- Queen Marie Antoinette. (Apparently uttered during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband, Louis XVI)
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It is perhaps no coincidence that Bolivia's President Evo Morales sought kinship in Chávez. The Andean nation, which has a small Euro-centric elite and a population which is 90 per cent indigenous/Mestizo, only saw its first non-Caucasian president in 2006.
There are parallels to Brazil, where a man of the people, Lula, rose to power soon after Chavez' red wave. Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega followed the same trend. Cuba's Fidel Castro represents the same socialist ideal: that the poor, the coloured, the illiterate, the segregated and the oppressed citizens deserve a fair shot at the basic constructs of society: education, healthcare and employment.
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It is much too easy, as we Canadians sit in the lap of freedom, democracy and controlled capitalism, to dismiss South American nations as "commies" and "leftist" playing Robin Hood to gain things they didn't earn. In nations where the plumbs have been distributed to the few, where all the power is concentrated in elite hands, where the social structure is cemented to maintain the rigid social model favouring only the privileged, the default remedy is socialism. Perhaps it is the only viable denouement for those unlucky enough to be born in that condemned socio-economic cul-de-sac.
How lucky are we that we never have to choose between food and freedom? Even worse, some have neither and are willing to fight and die for both.
The colonial pyramid scheme in Venezuela was tipped over in the late 1990s when Hugo Chávez was elected President. Chavez was re-elected time after time because the vast majority of Venezuelans, who are poor, finally reached more than the crumbs they had previously been given out of the proverbial populous pie.
What you won't hear on CNN or Fox News is that Hugo Chávez offered light where there was once darkness, supplied doctors to the sick, afforded free schooling to children for whom education was an elusive dream. Hugo Chávez Occupied Venezuela's Wall Street before the movement started in the USA. The private oil companies were nationalized and their profits went from padding the yacht club members' wallets to building public schools and investing in infrastructure.
Hugo Chávez brought socialized medicine to his people long before ObamaCare. I once met a Cuban doctor who had spent some time working in rural Venezuela in a cuban collaboration program. She was surprised to learn she was the first medical person to visit the area ever. Ever!
Hugo Chávez reduced poverty in his country by a whopping 50 per cent from 1996 to 2010. That's a challenge we Canadians have yet to reach, despite successive federal and provincial efforts.
Hugo Chávez granted 2.1-million elderly people an old-age pension (a privilege previously afforded to 1 out of 5 who needed it). It is also a great achievement that Venezuela is now tied with Finland as the fifth country with the happiest population in the world.
Long before the Idle No More movement, Hugo Chávez was revered as a stalwart champion of the underdog struggle for indigenous rights. Chávez secured three seats in Venezuela's National Assembly and made his country the first in the region to reserve state and municipal indigenous appointments in key regions throughout the country.
Feminist supporters say Venezuela has come a long way under Chávez, with laws enshrining women's rights, the establishment of a women's and gender equality ministry and a bank, Banmujer, which gives credit to poor women. The head of the supreme court, the head of the national electoral commission, the attorney general, the ombudsman and the deputy head of the national assembly, as well as numerous ministers and legislators, are women.
While the American press will crucify Hugo Chávez and cherry-pick his dealings with less-than-friendly nations, lest we forget that the Americans were allied with the Taliban of the 1980s, and that Tunisian President Ben Ali's regime presented no problems to the USA until the Arab Spring.
As Canada has followed the USA's lead in many foreign affairs files, and continues to grovel for China's attention in international trade despite some well-documented transgressions, it is difficult to stomach the habitual omission of Hugo Chávez' formidable achievements in favour of his debatable missteps, designed to outplay his opponents who had generations of proven experience in manipulating the masses.
Hugo vs. Goliath
Hugo Chávez did what few other Developing World leaders have dared: he stood up to Euro-American imperialism. Like El LibertadorSimón Bolivar before him, Chávez did not accept the position of perpetual poverty imposed on his people. He stood up to subjugation; he stood up to corruption; he stood up for all those who, crushed by poverty and despair, did not have the strength to even crawl.
In the David and Goliath confrontation between the Mestizo and the colonial superpowers, Chávez punched above his weight. The crimson shirt Chavez wore was the colour of energy, passion, desire, strength, fire, and intensity.