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Sunday, February 26, 2017
Clara Nieto is a writer and diplomat, former ambassador of Colombia to the United Nations and author of the book "Obama y la nueva izquierda latinoamericana" (Obama and the New Latin American Left).
- The world has been shaken by the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, one of the most influential Latin American leaders in recent decades, as well as one of the most controversial and maligned figures on the planet.
He was hounded particularly by Colombia under the administration of former president Álvaro Uribe. When Juan Manuel Santos took over the presidency and embraced Chávez as his “new best friend,” it marked the beginning of one of the best eras in Colombian-Venezuelan relations.
Chávez, who died of cancer on Tuesday, Mar. 5, was adamant about the need to achieve peace in Colombia, in order to remove the pretext for the United States to meddle in its affairs. Santos has recognised that Venezuela’s devotion and interest have been decisive in helping the peace talks between the Santos administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group progress.
Great uncertainty hangs over the future of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. Intelligent analysis, slanted suppositions and plain speculation fill the global media about what might happen now that his leadership is gone: whether in the forthcoming elections his vice president Nicolás Maduro will win, or whether opposition candidate Henrique Capriles will wrest the presidency from him.
Perhaps the voters who gave Chávez overwhelming electoral victories – a large majority of the population – and who re-elected him even while knowing he was fighting for his life are not interested in a change.
His regime brought immense benefits to the country. He talked of “21st century socialism” as his government’s goal, and countered criticism from the Catholic Church hierarchy saying they should look for socialism in the Bible and the gospels.
He also curtailed neoliberal policies, recovered state control of the country’s natural resources, including oil and the state oil consortium PDVSA, and used its vast resources to carry out “missions” – social programmes – in favour of the poor.
Poverty fell from 49.4 percent in 1999, when he first took office, to 27.8 percent in 2010, and extreme poverty declined from 21.7 percent to 10.7 percent. With the help of Cuba, he made major progress in health and education, especially in eradicating illiteracy.
Chávez was responsible for the biggest geopolitical change in the history of Latin America: regional integration.
He proposed the creation of a regional body that would exclude the United States. Then president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva supported him, and South American integration was born: they created the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the South American Defence Council and the Bank of the South (BancoSur), Chávez’s initiative to isolate the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which have deplorable records in the region.
The jewel in the crown was the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in February 2010, convened by Lula, without the United States or Canada, in which all the regional nations took part, including Cuba.
“(It) has been one of the most important geopolitical changes over the last decade,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research.
In the international arena, Chávez was an influential voice. He was the first to criticise the handover of seven Colombian military bases for use by the United States as a surrender of national sovereignty and a threat to the region, especially for Venezuela which is already surrounded by U.S. bases. The concession caused a scandal across the region.
Chávez forged ties with China and agreed to sell it large volumes of oil to counteract Caracas’s dependence on the U.S. market, where Venezuela is the chief supplier, although the trade with the U.S. is mutually beneficial.
When the Colombian army made incursions into Ecuador to hunt down and kill the FARC’s number two commander and in the process killed 25 people, most of them guerrillas, Quito broke off relations with Bogotá – and Chávez, too, froze ties with Colombia.
When Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in La Paz for allegedly plotting against his government, Chávez did the same with the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, in a show of solidarity. Both presidents expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from their countries.
Chávez also took action in other conflicts: he rejected the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, and broke off relations with the subsequent regime in Honduras; when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the Palestinian territory of Gaza, resulting in immense destruction, thousands of deaths and global censure, Chávez called Israel “murderous” and expelled its ambassador.
Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador expanded their diplomatic and trading relations to far-off countries like China, Russia and Iran.
When it came to Iran, with which Washington has been in conflict since the occupation of the U.S. embassy and the hostage crisis in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Venezuela and Bolivia (she didn’t dare take a stab at Brazil) to “take a look at what the consequences might well be for them” and to “think twice.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, who had awakened so much hope in Latin America, maintained the hostile rhetoric of George W. Bush against Chávez, calling him a destabilising force.
Chávez and Obama met for the first time in Trinidad and Tobago at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, where they exchanged pleasantries and shook hands. Chávez commented that the meeting was cordial, but added: “Don’t be fooled, the empire is still alive and kicking!”
Chávez was more than a minor irritation to Uncle Sam. He was enormously popular in the region, and took over Cuba’s leadership role due to the immense economic resources at his disposal to make his voice heard, in contrast to Havana’s dearth.
His agreements to supply oil to different nations, to be paid for in kind, provided crude to friendly countries at preferential prices.
Bush supported a failed coup against Chávez in 2002, and the Venezuelan leader intensified his diatribes against the then U.S. president. He regarded him as “an idiot.” Obama inherited the conflict and kept it going.
Chávez’s legacy to his country and to the world is solid and invaluable: a shift from capitalism to socialism, a change of life for broad sectors in Venezuela; and consolidation of political and economic independence in the region, free from domination by Washington. It will be difficult to reverse these achievements. May he rest in peace.