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Latin American Integration, Post-Chávez

Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and editor of Other News.

ROME, Mar 19 2013 (IPS) - What is Hugo Chávez’s legacy to Latin America? The best way to evaluate a head of state is to examine what is left behind after his or her death. In the case of Chávez, his image is obscured by a series of ideological and cultural prejudices that hide a clear perception of who he was.

Chávez’s obvious faults have been exaggerated out of proportion by the ideological radicalisation that accompanied him. He was provocative to the point of using Iran, Libya and Syria to symbolise his independence from the United States.

However, his goal was not to find legitimacy as an international leader, but as a regional one. For this reason, he tried to highlight everything that could show up Washington’s impotence and decline.

His foreign policy, focused essentially on Latin America, was very simple: let us recover the message of our liberator, Simón Bolívar, to unite our peoples and free ourselves from the historic domination of the United States.

The arrival of former U.S. president George W. Bush was providential for Chávez: as the worst face of the United States, he was a useful confirmation of the Venezuelan president’s denunciations. With President Barack Obama, in contrast, he had to tone down his criticism.

His reputation as an international pariah was not due to his support for Cuba, which today is not regarded by anyone as a revolutionary or terrorist threat.

But a head of state who embraces “representatives of evil” like (the late Libyan leader) Muammar Gaddafi or (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is bound to spark rejection throughout the West, not only in the United States.

This was combined with a lack of understanding of Venezuela, since Chávez’s verbosity and his use of language that was neither elegant nor formal, but appropriate for stimulating the participation and identification of the poorest classes – his real political target – was interpreted in the West as demagoguery rather than as a means of communication. But this was the way Chávez was able to reach the popular classes not only in Venezuela, but also in Latin America as a whole.

Almost 200,000 poor Latin Americans recovered their sight thanks to Chávez, who paid for cataract operations in neighbouring countries, carried out by brigades of Cuban doctors. (People in Cuba were disconcerted to learn that one of the beneficiaries in Bolivia turned out to be sergeant Mario Terán, who killed revolutionary icon Che Guevara in La Higuera).

It is a fact that, thanks to Chávez, Latin America has made great strides towards integration. His name is associated with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), the Bank of the South (BanSur) and the boost that Venezuela’s incorporation has given to the Southern Common Market (Mercosur).

It is easy to brand all this as populism. But labels do not cancel an uncomfortable reality: in Latin America, the middle class is greatly outnumbered by the poorer classes. And traditional politicians were only interested in the middle class (if not merely the elites).

The region’s shift to the left in the last decade is surely due to the brutal impact of the neoliberal policies of the previous decade; but also to the entry of native peasants and the poorest segments of the population into the political arena.

This is why Chávez’s legacy is much greater than it might appear. It seems inevitable that Venezuela will have to cut back on its international solidarity (a worrying prospect for Cuba, in particular) and will cease to be a paradigm in the regional political scenario.

On the other hand, in this era of globalisation, the effort to take up again the ideals of Bolívar is inescapable and represents a true alternative to the betrayal of the liberators by the elites of the times. (Bolívar himself, in a famous phrase, said “he who serves a revolution ploughs the sea.”)

Only the selfishness of the elites can explain why Latin America, a substantially homogeneous region, more so than Europe and Africa, let alone Asia, has not integrated so as to compete more strongly and effectively at a global level.

While geopolitical influence in this century is swinging towards Asia, where China and India individually are more powerful than all of Latin America, it is in this region where new policies and pathways to more participative democracy are being forged, not in Europe, Africa or Asia.

It is hard to say whether Latin America will ultimately discover the road to unity. Chávez has done much more in this direction than any other head of state in recent history. This is his legacy. Time will tell whether, like Bolívar, he has ploughed the sea.

If he has, Hugo Chávez will go down in history as a frustrated dreamer, and details like his friendship with Ahmadinejad, his excessive verbosity or his vulgar language will not help explain the failure of Latin American unity. That will be the responsibility of the entire political class and its national egocentricities.


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