The tragic death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has reverberated around the world in a manner befitting his impact not only on the lives of millions of Venezuela's poor, but on the poor and supporters of justice everywhere. Cancer may have taken his life, but the ideas for which he stood will undoubtedly live on, contrary to the expectations and hopes of the rich in Venezuela, who throughout Chavez's 14 years as president extended themselves in toppling him from power, whether by fair means or foul. They will also live on despite the geopolitical interests of Washington and other western capitals, for whom Chavez represented a world in which justice for the poor and dispossessed were prioritized over the interests of the rich and powerful, and which as a consequence earned him their undying enmity.
Indeed, the measure of Chavez's effectiveness was the extent to which he was attacked as a demagogue, dictator, and tyrant - even though he was the most democratically elected leader of any in the entire world, winning four presidential elections, the last of which in October last year secured him 54.4% of the popular vote. In 2002 he survived a coup, orchestrated by the oligarchs who used to run the country in conjunction with a section of the military leadership, and which enjoyed the tacit support of the Bush administration. It failed when the poor of the the slums and barrios of Caracas descended on the presidential palace in their tens of thousands and demanded the return of their president. If this man was a dictator then one can only imagine what democracy looks like.
Of course the real reason Chavez came under such a sustained attack throughout his presidency had little to do with his style of government - which certainly was flamboyant and extrovert - but his orientation towards Venezuela's poor in a domestic program of radical reform which he and his millions of supporters named the Bolivarian Revolution. In concrete terms it has been responsible for the following achievements:
- The lowest indices of inequality in Latin America over the past 12 years. The indices of extreme poverty have dramatically decreased, along with poverty in general, with the Gini Coefficient (the measure of inequality in the distribution of income) being the lowest in the history of Venezuela. At the same time the Index of Human Development (IDH) has risen.
- A literacy program that has led to UNESCO declaring Venezuela a country free of illiteracy. Higher education enrollment has increased by 170 percent, up from 785,285 students in 1998 to over 2.12 million in 2009. Venezuela now occupies the second place in Latin America and fifth in the world when it comes to university graduation.
- The investment of 7.8% of GNP into a free healthcare program, known as Mission Barrio Adentro, designed to provide free healthcare services to the poor. To date it has saved 301,000 lives. Additionally, the level of infant mortality has been reduced by 32%.
- A reduction in the rate of unemployment from 16.1% in 1998 to 6.5% today. Venezuela's minimum wage is now among the highest in Latin America. Workers also receive a bonus of food and their pensions have been raised to the same level as the nation's minimum wage. With the PSUV's Mission Alimentation food is now offered at lower prices to the poor. The result has been a reduction in those suffering from a nutritional deficit from 5.3% of the population to 2.9% in the past decade.
- A 4% rise in GDP in 2011, with significant gains registered in the non-petroleum sector of the Venezuelan economy for the first time in decades.
Not content with that, Chavez was the inspiration behind a leftward shift throughout Latin America, a part of the world long ruled by a clutch of right wing dictatorships responsible for widespread torture, imprisonment without trial, murder, and repression. Those right wing dictatorships enjoyed the supported of the United States while ensuring that the region's economic and social development was retarded.
In contradistinction to this dark period in Latin American history, Venezuela under Chavez embarked on a policy of trans-border cooperation and investment, designed to fight poverty and increase economic grow throughout the region. This was carried out under the rubric of various organisations such as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), PETROCARIBE (providing cheap oil to Caribbean nations), and more recently the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR).
The closeness of the relationship forged between Venezuela and Cuba has also been significant, involving as it has an innovative exchange of oil from Venezuela in return for healthcare programs and medical missions from Cuba. This has gone a long way to lessening Cuba's economic isolation in the face of a decades-long economic blockade by the United States, while at the same time spreading the many achievements of the Cuban Revolution in healthcare, education, and a counter-hegemonic economic and social system to capitalism.
In truth it was Chavez's opposition to US domination of the region, the example he set in redistributing Venezuela's oil wealth to the poor at the expense of the rich, and his attempt to spread this example throughout Latin America, which earned him such vitriolic opposition and calumniation. Each of the aforementioned flew in the face of the neoliberal straitjacket responsible for devastating the lives of millions in Venezuela and throughout Latin America for decades prior to his emergence as a catalyst for progressive change.
Hugo Chavez and all of the aforementioned reforms he implemented in Venezuela and helped implement throughout Latin America was driven by a fierce sense of solidarity with the poor and marginalized. He was also anti imperialist to the core of his being, a strong voice against US hegemonic policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It was Dom Helder Camara, the Catholic archbishop whose devotion to Brazil's urban poor earned him the sobriquet of 'Bishop of the slums', who once said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
In Chavez Venezuela and the world had a leader who spent his life asking why. Not only that, he devoted his life to doing something about it. If this made him a communist then so be it. To the poor of Venezuela, Latin America, and around the world he was and will be always be remembered as a champion of justice and liberation - the kind that money cannot buy.
Yes, he may be dead, but his ideas live on.