Who was Hugo Chávez, really?

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When the president of Venezuela succumbed early last month to cancer, we heard one tired litany over and over. Our State Department must have dished out this press release weeks before, eager for Hugo Chávez’s demise: “The 58-year-old strongman was leaving his country in political and social turmoil.” (Translated: Perhaps now, the U.S. could reassert its control over Venezuelan oil production.)

When the president of Venezuela succumbed early last month to cancer, we heard one tired litany over and over. Our State Department must have dished out this press release weeks before, eager for Hugo Chávez’s demise: “The 58-year-old strongman was leaving his country in political and social turmoil.” (Translated: Perhaps now, the U.S. could reassert its control over Venezuelan oil production.)

I lamented such shallow, mean-spirited reporting on the passing of a popular, four-term president. Fortunately, I was visiting Los Angeles and found, as expected, this reasonably thoughtful coverage in the L.A. Times: “Chávez was remembered Friday as a leader who cared for the poor and opposed the dominance of one nation over others during a funeral that attracted dignitaries from around the world. … ‘Hugo wanted a world without empires, without hegemonies,’ eulogized his vice-president.”

Gustavo Dudamel (the L.A. Philharmonic’s famed young Venezuelan conductor), Spain’s Prince Felipe, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and actor Sean Penn were among the thousands of mourners. So, peeling back the controversy surrounding Hugo Chávez, just who was this man? Why, despite his harsh critique of selfish global powers, was he so influential?

Venezuela harbored Latin America’s typical abject poverty throughout Hugo’s childhood. His parents were small-town schoolteachers, and the lower middle class family experienced hunger during lean years and poor public policy. While studying at the military academy in Caracas, Chávez marveled at a powerful minority of folks uptown, living in great comfort.

Chávez grew increasingly interested in how socialism focuses on improving all of society by lifting the poor. He visualized a government whose foundation blocks would be: 1) emphasis on education; 2) civilian-military unity; 3) Latin American integration; 4) social justice; and 5) national sovereignty. Chávez favored tiberation theology, exercising a “preferential option for the poor” over “state socialism,” such as China’s or that of the former Soviet Union.

In 1989, the Caracas government killed 3,000 civilians protesting North American-imposed neo-liberal austerity mandates. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves. The charismatic Chávez planned and led a failed military coup to overthrow that government, whose president was later impeached.

By 1998, Hugo Chávez sensed the time was ripe, not for reform, but to entirely reorganize Venezuela. He ran for the presidency and won with over 56 percent of the vote, declaring, “The resurrection of Venezuela has begun. Nothing and no one can stop it!”

When Chávez took office, one in five Venezuelans were malnourished. That figure is now under 5 percent. Infant mortality has been halved. Ninety-six percent of the populace has access to clean water. There is 170 percent more health clinics across the nation than before.

The number of Venezuelans below the poverty line has decreased 50 percent. Those exiting “extreme poverty” have increased 70 percent. The minimum wage is the highest in Latin America. Economic inequality among Venezuelans has shrunk 54 percent, behind only Canada. You see, social spending increased over 60 percent in the 13 years of Hugo’s “Bolivarian revolution.”

Founding a kinder, gentler state for the common man required wresting majority-control of Venezuela’s oil industry — sitting atop the planet’s largest reserves — from the previously ruling class and the multi-national corporations they served. This was effected gradually over Chávez’s second term, much to the consternation of Washington (hence the incessant bad press, duh) and Venezuela’s well-to-do.

Chávez’s opponents went ballistic and with U.S. encouragement, orchestrated a coup of sorts in 2002. Hugo was removed for exactly three days. Several hundred thousand citizens marched through Caracas in support of Chávez and his programs. The Army brought the president back to stay.

An entirely new constitution had been passed by popular referendum in 2000, drawn up by locally elected delegates. This constitution guarantees government transparency; the right to civil disobedience; and the rights of the indigenous, of women, the environment, and it requires the military to participate in national development. Of its 300 articles 116 address human rights. Local organizing is favored over top-down administration.

Hugo’s personal joie de vivre was contagious. On his weekly TV and radio call-in shows, he sang, read stories and told jokes. He sold the presidential limousine and donated all his salary to scholarships. He invited citizens to stay in touch by tweeting him and a half million took him up on that. He hired 200 folks to manage and sort the messages.

Hugo Chávez played baseball, was a painter, wrote plays and composed poetry. He generously donated to or fair-traded with numerous countries and raised their standards of living: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and the U.S. You heard right: the last seven years of his life, Chávez (through Citgo) provided free heating oil each winter to over 400,000 low-income Americans and 250 homeless shelters.

Back to priorities within Venezuela: Schooling is tuition-free, day care through university. Thousands of primary schools are newly built or refurbished. There are 10 new universities. Venezuela ranks fifth in the world in the proportion of university students to the population. (Coincidentally, she tied Finland for the fifth happiest citizenry.)

Out of the gate, Chávez prioritized literacy. Venezuela now ranks third highest in number of readers in South America, an accomplishment lauded by UNESCO. Internet access increased 43 percent under Chávez, with nearly 800 free computer-use centers established throughout the country. Such development earned an OAS award.

Chávez moved cautiously in redistributing 5 million acres of unused farmland to the landless. During the 2002-03 unrest, 50 land-reform workers were killed while implementing this program. But milk production is up almost 50 percent, the rice yield has increased 84 percent and soybeans 858 percent. Death by starvation has been lopped in half. In 13 years, more than 100,000 cooperatives, involving 1.5 million Venezuelans, have received government start-up funds and technical training for a variety of enterprises, many agricultural. And two-thirds of all businesses remain privately owned.

Venezuela’s gross domestic product has increased 94.7 percent overall, growing on average 13.5 percent annually. The national deficit is one of the lowest in the world, shriveling from 73.5 percent of GDP to 14.4 in a decade. The Wall Street Journal declared the Caracas Stock Exchange “by far the best performing stock market in the world.”

In 2009, Chávez founded the Bank of the South, a regional development bank to be an alternative to the International Monetary Fund. Bank of the South is funded and managed by the countries of the region and earned the endorsement of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Ah, so adored, so reviled! Chávez won two re-elections with 60 and 63 percent of the votes. By his final campaign, he was a dying man — still beating his opponent by 12 points — a landslide by American standards. And yes, he caused his detractors great fits. The paradox was well-defined by a Fox News reporter covering Chávez: “I don’t know what was more disturbing: his blasphemous remarks … or the amount of applause he got when he finished.”

Sources: Bloomberg, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Center for Economic and Policy Research, CIA World Factbook, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Counterpunch, FAIR, Gallup Poll, Latin American Perspectives, New Statesman, Third World Quarterly, Time Inc., venezuelanalysis.com.