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Losing Chavez the indispensable


Hugo Chavez behind a microphone at the UN, listeningWith President Hugo Chavez's death Latin America has arguably lost the most influential political leader of the last two decades and has lost one of those men that in Bertolt Brecht's prose are the 'indispensible ones'.

Caudillo is a uniquely Latin American political term that goes back to the XIX century, and during his almost 14 years in power President Chavez became its modern embodiment. With a mix of colorful rhetoric, authoritarianism and a penchant for class confrontational narrative, Chavez resurrected the image of the old caudillo, a charismatic leader able to create a symbiotic relationship between el pueblo (the people) and the government.

And unquestionably the people were at his heart. Chavez has been the champion of the socially and economically marginalised since he came to power in 1999 under the banner of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. And he put money where his mouth was. The level of poverty, a definer of this oil rich nation, decreased thanks to a decade of social investment. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean the investment reached US$400.000 million.

The black and mulatto, the majority of the 29 million Venezuelans, worshipped him. To them Chavez was a paternal figure while for the 'blonde ones' — as he referred to the minority white elite — he was a merciless class enemy.

The connection with the people was heightened by his brilliant use of non-commercial media. His Sunday radio talk show Aló Presidente (Hello Mr President) had thousands of followers among the poor. He was media savvy. He challenged the right-wing commercial media system — accused of being behind the failed and shambolic coup of 2002 — and established TeleSur, a pan-Latin American television network that was, as he once uttered, 'a voice from Latin America and not from Atlanta'.

With a few exceptions, most western media demonised him. He was portrayed as a dictator and his government was regularly branded as a 'regime' — forgetting that he was democratically elected in vigorous political contests that outshone many in western nations. His anti-imperialist narrative made him the bête noire of Washington.

Chavez transformed the political landscape of Venezuela in a dramatic way. He broke the hegemony of Venezuela's traditional political parties — the Christian Democrat COPEI and the Social Democrat Democratic Action. Muddied up to their necks in cronyism and corruption, these two parties from 1958 to 1999 took turns to control and embezzle funds from the oil lubricated state coffers. Chavez left a more democratic society.

And along the way he also transformed the Latin American political landscape. Chavez saw himself as the heir to the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the pan-American leader and hero of the Latin American independent movement from Spain. The Chavez 'Bolivarian movement' was his most ambitious undertaking. It was the foundation of his 21st Century Socialism, an economic, social and political alternative to what he saw as a decomposed capitalist system.

As a good Bolivarian, Chavez didn't want to make this transformation alone. He sought the elusive unity and collaboration of Latin American leaders. He seduced them — especially left wing governments — with his anti-imperialist rhetoric and with the vast resources of oil at his disposal.

The result was a Caribbean storm of integrationist initiatives, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Bank of the South, Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

Nicolas Maduro, a 51 year-old former bus driver, took over power as soon as the death of Chavez was announced. He has big shoes to fill. First of all, he will have to face an imminent showdown with the centrist Henrique Capriles — defeated by Chavez in last October's election. 

However Maduro's most urgent task is to maintain the integrity of the Bolivarian movement. Without Chavez, Maduro will have to fight hard to avoid the chaotic rise of internal factions, including the less 'Chavista' and more nationalist faction represented by some prominent military officers.

The death of Chavez is the death of the first truly Latin American caudillo of the 21st century and it is also a marker for the modern history of the region, creating a pre- and post-Chavez chapter. And while the preservation of his legacy remains to be seen, Chavez's memory will be preserved in the many streets of Latin America soon to be named after him. That is for sure. Because that's the way Latin Americans honour great leaders.

Antonio Castillo headshotAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and academic. He is the current Director of Journalism, RMIT University.

Topic tags: Antonio Castillo, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela



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Existing comments

I am truly confused! I have read the account of Chavez's rule in the Human Rights Watch on line publication and cannot you and they are talking about the same person; to quote the TV programme "the truth is out there" but how is one to know what the truth is? This the link to the HRW site http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/05/venezuela-chavez-s-authoritarian-legacy

John O'Hanlon | 06 March 2013  

After such a eulogy, I urge your readers to balance it by reading http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/03/venezuela-after-ch%C3%A1vez%20?fsrc=nlw|newe|3-6-2013|5209419|35693432|. Nobody is "owner of the truth" as we say here in Argentina, but at least it should be recognised that there are two sides. Chavez filled his own pockets and those of his family at least as much as his corrupt predecessors did, and left the economy of his country in a disastrous state.

Joss Heywood | 07 March 2013  

Thank you for this article that puts Chavez's achievement in its proper historical context so beautifully.

Sara Dowse | 07 March 2013  

A loss of one of the greatest Christian leftist leaders of the modern age. Chavez was the embodiment of all that needed to be opposed in the flawed economic model of the United States and the leftist bloc in Latin America headed by Chavez was the only true opposition to the forces of neo-liberalism and globalisation that we have seen since the collapse of the corrupted USSR. A great shame but may his legacy and work continue on. Venezuela under Chavez offered the greatest example of a democratic and genuinely socialist society we have seen to date.

Megan Tatham | 07 March 2013  

A hagiography of a dissent-crushing, economically incompetent Latin American autocrat by a columnist for the leftist New Matilda, with equally glowing comments from Green Left Weekly writers. Good to see Eureka Street keeping to its brief. What a pity E.S. wasn't around decades ago, to have Shirley MacLaine gush about the happy, colourful beggars in Communist China, and Lee Rhiannon's parents (if not a young Lee herself)regale us with all those overfulfilled five year plans in Soviet Russia.

HH | 07 March 2013  

The one thing that saves Eureka Street from being a rag-ejournal of the left is that it posts dissenting views. It is to congratulated for this. Not all of my posts get through here. Whether that is due to over censorious moderators or technical glitches, I don't know. But more of my posts get through here than on other leftist-oriented sites. I especially appreciate the links to articles that are provided by the likes of John O'Hanlon and Joss Heywood. This makes for a much more interesting a robust debate. It would be even better if Eureka Street sought out some articles by writers on the other side of debates. It's the free market of ideas and far more interesting than hearing from your own side all the time.

MJ | 07 March 2013  

I agree with MJ about Eureka Street's openness to opposing views. One good thing about this electronic medium is that it's interactive - the balance often comes in posts from readers, so that we're not dependent on the publisher being balanced (thought of course the moderateor's role is a powerful one). It's possible to have a civil conversation, in other words.

Joan Seymour | 07 March 2013  

And what Hugo Chavez did for instrumental music playing in Venezuela has to be heard to be believed !! The writers grumbling about human rights & Chavez may care to have a squiz at the latest figures for extra judicial murders via drones by Obama & his henchmen [ 2700 to 4700 killed in five years - from memory. But only 4 or 5 American citizens ]. Obama makes the Israelis look like rank amateurs .

DavID HICKS | 07 March 2013  

I am genuinely surprised - and saddened - by the paucity, the superficiality, of this analysis. Hagiographic tributes to demagogues won't help the poor. The sad truth is that such ideological wet dreams leave the very people with whom the writer ostensibly sympathises without even a Kleenex to wipe up the mess made in reality. For a more realistic and reasonable analysis I would recommend "Now for the Reckoning" at The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/21573048

Stefan | 07 March 2013  

An interesting and useful corrective to much of the stuff we read in the media. Chavez was no favourite in the USA. He was, I suspect, somewhere in the middle between his extreme adulators and extreme detractors. There certainly seems to be a strong democratic, populist movement in Latin America today, as evidenced by the rise of people like ex-President Lugo in Paraguay, a country which, like Venezuela, has had its share of bad governance; elitism; cronyism etc. There may well have been abuses and limitations under Chavez, but I wonder whether his government was worse in that regard than the Junta in Argentina or Pinochet in Chile? Far better, I should think. We in Australia have a different political history and tradition to Latin America and have not had the elitism that exists in countries such as Peru, Venezuela etc. and it is hard for us to understand their problems because they are so different. I think democracy in Latin America is a work in progress.

Edward F | 08 March 2013  

What is more disturbing about this article is that the director of journalism at RMIT could be so indoctrinated in the far left view of the world that he should write such a positive article on a leader who did so much to destroy freedom of the press in his own country. See quote from wiki 'In the group's 2009 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders noted that "Venezuela is now among the region’s worst press freedom offenders.' That mr castillo should be given such an important post in one of our better universities shows how terrible a grip the left world view has on our universities.

Alex | 08 March 2013  

When I went to Venezuela a couple of years ago I discovered that the reality of the revolution was very different to what I had been led to believe from reading the US-dominated media. There are tens of thousands of popular committees all over the country through which people run their communities for themselves. The poor love Chavez and Chavismo because he palpably improved their lives, bringing literacy to the illiterate, power to the powerless and hope to the downtrodden. He established the norm (for the first time) of fair and open elections in Venezuela. He did not establish a secret array of torture chambers around the world a la George Bush, yet the right wing calls him a dictator. While leading the country towards socialism he did not lead via the Cuban road of a revolution that wiped the established state clean to start again with new institutions. That is why Venezuela is still so complex. The old structures remain and new structures are coming into being. What exists is an economy owned and run by capitalists, a government determined on fundamental change and a population that is deeply committed on socialism.

Barry Healy | 08 March 2013  

I found the article to be special pleading. The comments raised many issues the author willfully ignored. I look forward to Antonio Castillo’s eulogy for Fidel.
Many workers and peasants eulogized Stalin when he died; and Peron too of course.

Peter | 09 March 2013  

Here is the full Bertolt Brecht quote.
Those who are weak don't fight.
Those who are stronger might fight
for an hour.
Those who are stronger still might fight
for many years.
The strongest fight
their whole life.
They are the indispensable ones.

The Tamil Tigers certainly met these criteria

Peter | 09 March 2013  

Barry Healy, of the Green Left Weekly says above that Chavez "established the norm (for the first time) of fair and open elections in Venezuela." Human Rights watch reports that "During (Chavez's) presidency, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees enabled his government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda. President Chávez and his supporters used their powers in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and human rights defenders." So this is what the left defines as "fair and open" democracy. Seems Stephen Conroy was taking notes ...

HH | 13 March 2013  

EDWARD F - a simple fact check here - unlike the military coups in Chile and Argentina - Chavez was democratically elected,

AURELIUS | 15 March 2013  

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