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Monday, May 30, 2005

A friendly article about Hugo Chavez

From England's Guardian, of course.
The Chávez government, for its part, has forged ahead with various spectacular social projects, assisted by the huge jump in oil prices, from $10 to $50 a barrel over the past six years. Instead of gushing into the coffers of the already wealthy, the oil pipelines have been picked up and directed into the shanty towns, funding health, education and cheap food. Foreign leaders from Spain and Brazil, Chile and Cuba, have come on pilgrimage to Caracas to establish links with the man now perceived as the leader of new emerging forces in Latin America, with popularity ratings to match. This extensive external support has stymied the plans of the US government to rally the countries of Latin America against Venezuela. They are not listening, and Washington is left without a policy.

Chávez himself, a youthful former army colonel of 51, is now perceived in Latin America as the most unusual and original political figure to have emerged since Fidel Castro broke on to the scene nearly 50 years ago. With huge charm and charisma, he has an infinite capacity to relate to the poor and marginal population of the continent. A largely self-educated intellectual, the ideology of his Bolivarian revolution is based on the writings and actions of a handful of exemplary figures from the 19th century, most notably Simón Bolívar, the man who liberated most of South America from Spanish rule. Chávez offers a cultural as well as a political alternative to the prevailing US-inspired model that dominates Latin America.

So, what does his Bolivarian revolution consist of? He is friendly with Castro - indeed, they are close allies - yet he is no out-of-fashion state socialist. Capitalism is alive and well in Venezuela - and secure. There have been no illegal land seizures, no nationalizations of private companies. Chávez seeks to curb the excesses of what he terms "savage neo-liberalism", and he wants the state to play an intelligent and enabling role in the economy, but he has no desire to crush small businesses, as has happened in Cuba. International oil companies have fallen over themselves to provide fresh investment, even after the government increased the royalties that they have to pay. Venezuela remains a golden goose that cannot be ignored.

What is undoubtedly old fashioned about Chávez is his ability to talk about race and class, subjects once fashionable that have long been taboo, and to discuss them in the context of poverty. In much of Latin America, particularly in the countries of the Andes, the long-suppressed native peoples have begun to organize and make political demands for the first time since the 18th century, and Chávez is the first president in the continent to have picked up their banner and made it his own.
I can vouch for his charisma and the fervency of his supporters (and detractors). Low oil prices in the late 1990's made it possible for him to take power, and the high oil prices of 2005 have given him a great chance to succeed. Chavez seems to be up to the task, although it is a formidable one.