The personalities of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Venezuela’s deceased president Hugo Chavez couldn’t have been more different. Nehru was an erudite, eloquent, scholarly, compassionate leader born in aristocracy and groomed in the politics of civil, non-violent agitation, a thorough democrat all his life. Chavez was deliberately rustic, often brash, with a taste for theatrics. He was born poor, started his career in the military and although always democratically elected, he had no qualms flirting with a bit of totalitarianism.
However, in a sense they were also the same. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once argued that for Asia and Africa Nehru was the face of liberation, the voice of their empowerment in a world previously populated by the din of “white man’s burden”. In this sense, Chavez was very similar to Nehru: he was the voice of Latin America, the face of their liberation from the hegemony of the American Empire.
Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, a time when US power was arguably at its peak. Latin American states had traditionally been considered US allies, obedient to the capitalist class and with no voice or influence over events beyond their borders. Subsequently, Latin America saw an extraordinary and unprecedented revolution at the ballot box, where a host of impoverished populations began rejecting the stranglehold which an elite capitalist class had systematically created over the years. This threw up a variety of notable leaders such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the Kirchners in Argentine and of course Lula da Silva in Brazil.
Demotix/Hossein Koliya. All rights reserved.
This non-violent revolution has resulted in a politics that has concentrated on empowering indigenous populations and an economics geared at using national resources to fund wide-ranging social development projects. The greatest example is Venezuela itself, where extreme poverty is estimated to have gone down from 40% to 7.3%, and human development indicators like malnutrition rates and education and healthcare access have shown drastic improvements. As noted above, Chavez was part of a larger trend, but in many ways he was also its initiator and certainly its most vocal architect.
Although many of his allies, most notably Lula da Silva of Brazil, were much more successful at negotiating their difference with the United States, it was Chavez whose uncompromising stand against the neo-imperialism of powerful western nations created the kind of discourse which made change possible. The “Bolivarian Revolution” he rhetorically heralded was not limited to local shores, but made an international appeal for politics to be more empowering rather than disenfranchising.
Its most important constituent in terms of international politics was consistent and insistent opposition to American neo-imperialism. Chavez was always going to defy American interests in Venezuela, but Washington’s open backing of a failed coup attempt against him in 2002 cemented it further and made him take the attack beyond Venezuela. As his position at home became even stronger, his popularity abroad surged and Chavez gained greater confidence, becoming a prominent voice of dissent on the international stage. This aspect is most remembered by his rhetorical declamations of the United States, marked most particularly by the speech he made before the UN General Assembly in 2006 in which he called then US president George Bush the “devil”.
However, this defiance moved much ahead of mere rhetoric. Apart from supporting political forces in his neighbourhood which were opposed to American interests, Chavez called for building alternatives to international institutions, like the World Bank and IMF, which he considered to be agents designed to expand and maintain western hegemony. The most pointed assertion of his anti-Americanism was the policy of selling oil in every currency other than the dollar. His support for the Palestinian cause and derision of American hypocrisy in dealing with countries like Iran and Libya were meant both to undermine US hegemony as well as assert his anti-imperialism.
None of these policies on their own explain why Chavez became such an inspirational figure for people all over the world trying to resist the neo-liberal order emanating from the west. The truth is that Chavez became an icon because in a largely uni-polar world where even emerging giants preferred to appear ‘neutral’ on the international stage, Chavez took a vocal stand and drew the lines. While many western analysts have tried discrediting him as another dictator from the ‘Third World’, the truth is that Chavez enjoyed mass support at home as well as unprecedented popularity in his neighbourhood.
This gave him the legitimacy to create an island of independence right in the backyard of the American Empire. His politics would seem suicidal to the mind of any right-thinking ‘realist’ analyst, but his success lay in the fact that he became a voice for that which did not conform to the status quo in international politics, and he gained his legitimacy from his success.
The debate over Chavez’s legacy will continue for years. The results of his efforts will continue to unfold and be scrutinised in the time to come. But amidst the economics and empirics of it all, what stands out is his voice, and the image of an icon that inspired millions. For that, Hugo Chavez will be remembered as the face of Latin America’s emergence from the backyard of the American Empire, as the empowerment of an entire region. Much like Jawaharlal Nehru is remembered by the likes of Desmund Tutu.