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Hugo Chávez Made History

In this column, Johan Galtung, rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University, writes that a few black dots should not prevent us from seeing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as a great maker of history, who lifted those at the bottom up from misery into economic wellness, political participation, cultural pride and social dignity. Galtung is author of "Peace Economics: from a Killing to a Living Economy" (

ALFAZ, Spain, Mar 8 2013 (IPS) - That his life and his deeds had black dots is part of the story but should not prevent us from seeing the greatness of a maker of history. First, in his own country, Venezuela, Hugo Chávez lifted those at the bottom up from misery, into economic wellness, political participation, cultural pride (in their often African, or Indian, blood), social dignity – going far beyond Gini coefficients to measure increasing equality.

Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

Second, he did the same for Latin America, he helped lift the bottom countries up, under the name of the iconic Simón Bolívar: Cuba and Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, Brazil…to mention some.

Of course the two policies are related. Colombia, with its long record of violence from 1948 to 2013, is a pariah country and can only be lifted up by lifting up those at the bottom, attacking flagrant inequality. Chávez and his fellow leaders, Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, Lula da Silva, are on line.

A formidable team, doing far more than the European leaders who are trying to manage their crisis. The late essayist-journalist Christopher Hitchens interviewed Chávez some years ago, asking him about his similarities and differences with Fidel Castro. Chávez answered that when it came to U.S. imperialism they were of one mind, in complete solidarity.

But then he added: however, Fidel is a communist who believes in a one-party state headed by the communist party; I am a democrat to the left, believing in a multi-party state and free elections; Fidel is a Marxist who believes in the public, state sector of the economy only; I believe in a mixed economy, public and private; Fidel is an atheist, believing in scientific atheism; I am a Catholic and take note of the fact that Jesus lived among the poor.

Too dissonant for some Anglo-American minds to handle. Very meaningful in Latin America, however, particularly when so many leave the Catholic Church, joining the evangelicals.

The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, as a political programme: not lifting the bottom up to Heaven, but to a better reality in this world. Many countries have the oil money to do so, and the majority of poor to give them democratic legitimacy. But Chávez did it, inspiring and sharing with other Latin American leaders and peoples, and beyond, the world.

Is Venezuela economically sustainable? The economy is in trouble, there is a lack of investments, debt to the Chinese is piling up (a minor point as long as oil flows to China rather than to a U.S. now turning tar sands into sink holes).

The key factor is to make former marginalised, excluded slum dwellers contribute to the economy, strengthening both production, supply, and demand. Many feel threatened by the poor and the race factor, including Chávez himself: “Will they treat us the way we treated them?” And, will they outcompete us?

Some will sabotage — too late to kill Chávez, but maybe some of the economy. Many countries will feel threatened by poor countries coming up, for the same reasons and one more: will that inspire our own downtrodden people to do the same?

Could blacks in the U.S. and Gulf states be interested in a (con)federation with Caribbean countries populated the same way, by slavers from Liverpool?

Somebody is working 24/7 for Venezuela not to succeed, for sure. But it may be too late. The egg has been stood on its end, and it was Chávez who did it.

There are questions beyond Venezuela’s future on the horizon. It will be difficult for economists to stick to their trickling down illusions given Chávez’s bold moves. But positive discrimination is sometimes an indispensable shock therapy to lift up those in misery — women all over the world, non-whites, Malays in Malaysia, dalits in India, even if it “destroys market mechanisms” – for the short time it took to have an effect in Venezuela.

Economists should help with lifting up those at the bottom, including in countries that do not have oil wealth, not only to show the problems, but also because it will be difficult for Christian theologians to disregard this challenge: Jesus lived among the poor, not only preaching on the Mount, but feeding, nursing, comforting, with compassion, on earth.

Chávez was not a theologian entering that intellectual landscape, mined for two millennia where every step is wrong, for some, for many. He acted.

This eternal debate inside the church is by no means new, as Hans Kung writes in his superb “Is it time, at last, for a Vatican Spring?” (International Herald Tribune, Mar. 1, 2013). If not, says Kung, “the church will fall into a new ice age, shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect”.

Kung himself could turn it around, as pope, for the whole world. It will also be difficult for left wing extremists to see Fidel Castro’s line as the only possible one. Western democratic legitimacy, diverse-symbiotic economy and strong ethical motivation may carry us further.

But the West has a tendency to confuse violence with conflict, ceasefire and disarmament of “rebels” with solutions, multi-party electoral democracy with mediation; and the rule of law leaves out acts of omission and human rights leave out people’s rights. A genius makes us think, and act, differently, thereby making history. Chávez was one. Thank you, Hugo!


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  • Zookeeper91326

    Total B.S.

  • notropis

    A few black dots, huh? Human Rights Watch has a different view:

    Just because a tyrant puts the US in its place, doesn’t make the tyrant less tyrannical.

    Whitewashing out Chavez’s evils does not promote progressive goals.

  • alanis reech

    Tyrant? Go to Venezuela to ask majorities about this topic. Isn´t Merkel and her partners tyrans?