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The Statesman


The death of an icon or dictator?

Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pay respects as his funeral procession travels through Caracas, Venzuela, on Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pay respects as his funeral procession travels through Caracas, Venzuela, on Wednesday, March 6, 2013.

The death of Hugo Chavez sent shock waves across the world. Who exactly died: a dictator or one of the strongest leaders in Latin America? His funeral was attended by the world leaders U.S. politicians hate the most, like the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With elections in a month, the future of Venezuela is uncertain, especially after the death of a polarizing, yet popular leader of the masses. But Chavez’s death also reminds us that this still isn’t about Venezuela. To the U.S., Venezuela’s future is and will always remain a question of self and economic interest, and never about the needs and wants of those suffering.

Venezuela’s previous president, Carlos Perez, started his second term on an anti-neoliberal campaign. Ready to fight against the privatization and open markets that countries like the U.S. wanted to bring to country, Perez went against his words and agreed to a new alliance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), predominantly influenced and headquartered in the U.S., offered Venezuela a more than $4 billion loan to re-energize the failing economic system. Perez, a man who just a few weeks prior compared the IMF to a bomb, put the country into a period of revolt. Because of reforms, the price of gas increased, which in turn raised the cost of public transportation.

This was met with massive protests, which quickly ended with the killings of 500-3000 citizens by the National Guard under the order of Perez. Even after Perez was ousted, inflation rates continued to go up and the government kept cutting social programs. These actions led to the first coup attempt by Chavez, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army. Though he failed at first, he was launched into stardom and later became the face of the Bolivarian Revolution.

It’s hard not to see Chavez as a man to connect with. He believed in the underrepresented people of Venezuela. In the documentary “South Of The Border,” Chavez takes a trip to his hometown, where his supporters run alongside his car just to get a glimpse at their leader as they shout praises. This wasn’t the man portrayed by U.S. politicians and media. To the public, he was a far left socialist who threatened the values of capitalist America.

Chavez became president in 1998, with the majority of his voters coming from the poor and working classes. Chavez ran on a platform of social and economic reform that was only backed by a popular image. To his followers, he was charismatic and gave off a ‘macho’ vibe. As the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, he led a social movement based off Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century Latin American statesman and revolutionary who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish rule. His idea was to promote economic independence, popular democracy, and create a new nationalism built from a mass social movement.

Citgo, a part of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, has been a major player in supporting the poor in the U.S. It provided free heating oil to the poor and homeless shelters, and while the U.S. Government chose to cut spending on energy for low income households, Chavez continued to increase support to the poor.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Chavez offered various forms of help in the forms of money, fuel and food, among other things. This aid was rejected by the president at the time, George W. Bush. This wasn’t a partisan divide. Even today, President Obama has rejected aid from and the government of Chavez. Money donated through Citgo has gone into developing communities in the Bronx, and back home through medical aid.

Yet all this aid comes with a grain of salt. While Chavez gave oil to the U.S., he also had strong and personal relationships with the leaders of the world who most despised the system of the U.S. He viewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his ideological brother and supported the Syrian and Cuban regimes, among a few others.

Many of his policies contradict socialist ideology, and Chavez chose his policies case by case. For the U.S., oil was a major factor in the relations with Chavez, and as the U.S. received oil, so did our ‘enemy,’ Cuba. Chavez kept moving more towards radical socialism, which is why the U.S. portrays him as a dictator. But when a political leader can rally the masses and have support for more than a decade, he must be doing something right.

It’s hard to call a leader a dictator when so much of the population stood by him. Those who opposed Chavez didn’t belong to the poor, working class, but rather it came from the private industry. Private television networks and newspaper were open about their opposition, and continuously battled to delegitimize his power.

But it’s the fact, living in the U.S., how can we properly judge the situation in Venezuela? How can we determine Chavez was a dictator? His move to create unlimited terms for president was seen as a move for absolute power for life, yet many developed countries today, like Germany and Australia, have no term limits. Chavez clearly offered something to the people if millions supported his presidency.

Today in the U.S., many look at radical movements, like the Tea Party as a joke, yet it’s hard to avoid the fact that the party has a point. In many of the Latin American countries, the U.S. has had a long history of being an imperialistic force that only cares about it’s own interests. When you look at the leaders and countries of Latin America, most find a common bond in anti- U.S. ideals.

Many social movements happened to get rid of the power and influence of the U.S., and Chavez gave the people of Venezuela what they wanted. In a country of increasing poverty, it would have been more surprising if such a large body of people sat still. Socialism doesn’t benefit the U.S. in the way it could and has in some countries. Another aspect of socialism and how the U.S. views and teaches it, is that it can only come in a radical and militant form.

Many first-world countries have socialistic ideas that don’t immediately cause their governments to collapse. In areas of the world that rely heavily on labor and the working class, socialism represents their interests much more than capitalism ever will. The status quo in the U.S. exploits the developing world, which makes socialism a threat to the backbone of what fuels capitalism.

Criticism from the Bush administration was that Chavez didn’t have U.S. interests at hand. This is the problem. The U.S. sees any leader to be a dictator if it doesn’t support the U.S. In some cases of course this isn’t true, like North Korea, but in a country like Venezuela, why does the U.S. believe another country should put its interests first?

Every country needs to develop in a way that suits the population living there. If anything, the U.S. is the dictator in this case, using every developing nation, and even many first world countries, as pawns in the game of U.S. chess. Just look at Hurricane Katrina as a humanitarian issue, where Venezuela was willing to help, not because it would benefit the country, but rather because the people in New Orleans were suffering and needed help. Those who can’t afford heating oil in the U.S. are forgotten by the U.S. government, and are helped by Citgo.

After he was elected for the first time, Chavez gave a speech to thousands of spectators. He greatly put his accomplishment as one of the people’s. “This power which you have given me, doesn’t belong to me.

This is your power. You elected a government, that will not be a government of Chavez, because Chavez is the people. It will be a government of the people.” His charisma as a new revolutionary leader scares the U.S. because it proves that U.S. interest doesn’t matter to the rest of the world.

It shows that in Venezuela, if people want to be heard, the will be. That’s a scary threat to the U.S., where preaching democracy and freedom, is just talk. The idea of social revolutions and change is a threat to the free world, because without the power to manipulate the third world, would the first really exist?

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