In the wake of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's victory in the attempt by the opposition to recall him last week, one might ask, what does Chavez have that Fidel Castro of Cuba, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, and Salvador Allende of Chile lacked? Is it his charisma? Populist ideals? A restive elite? An antagonistic and powerful northern neighbor? No, they all shared those attributes and handicaps.
Oil. Hugo Chavez has oil, one of the largest reserves in the world and a fifty percent increase in government revenues because of the rising prices for it on the global market.
Both President George W. Bush and the Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, have characterized him as an "anti-democratic leader" but considering Hugo's program and achievements in office, one can only wonder what common meaning "democratic" can have to two men who profess to disagree upon so many issues. If, by democratic, they mean a government run by a small plutocracy that controls all of the country's wealth, then I suppose that Chavez is anti-democratic. If they mean leaders who funnel the people's money into the pockets of their friends, then I suppose he is anti-democratic. In fact, if they mean men who identify with the poor to the point of putting programs in place that will lift the entire society in a generation, then Chavez is certainly anti-democratic. It might be nice to live in an anti-democratic country if this is what democratic means in the Alice-in-Wonderland parallel world of American presidential politics.
But if democracy means to be by, for, and of the people, then Hugo Chavez might want to take a turn as U.S. president when he has cleaned up Venezuela.
The elites in Venezuela are wild with rage at Chavez to the point that they conducted a six-year-long strike in an attempt to disrupt the economy that failed only because the oil money kept it from complete collapse. The bank fraud that crippled the Venezuelan economy before Chavez came to power has been ignored by the opposition as one possible source of its misery. Somehow we have all become so accustomed to major fraud by multinational corporations such as the Enron and Arthur Anderson swindles that we have come to regard them as the price of doing business. It is not and should not be so.
The referendum on Chavez's rule is a result of that economic battery. One woman, an unemployed lawyer who has been seen on CNN news reports selling socks out of the back of her SUV describes Chavez, in English, as a communist, spitting out the word with the force of an expletive. Now that he has faced them down, they are trying to convince the world that Chavez stole the election.
Fidel Castro's health workers only make the case for them: Peasants who previously suffered and died prematurely because of the inaccessibility of health care, now have a chance at a better life because of Cuba's influx of health workers dispatched to work in Venezuela's poorest sectors.
Thousands who formerly had no chance for a decent wage and no hope of an education are now benefiting from the oil cash flowing in to finance infrastructure redevelopment and literacy programs. Yet to hear the American media tell the story, Chavez proves his communist leanings by meeting with Fidel Castro. Well, I haven't seen George Bush sending any health workers or teachers to help the plight of the lower classes in Venezuela. As my mother says, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If Bush wanted to undermine communism in Venezuela, perhaps real aid that didn't end up in the pockets of the rich would be a place to start. This is an obvious lesson that our money-obsessed leaders have failed to learn.
Various Latin American governments have attempted to redistribute wealth but most have had to struggle with the finite resources held in the hands of the upper classes. The "redistribution of wealth" in Castro's Cuba, in Arbenz's Guatemala, or Allende's Chile required wresting existing real estate ownership and other wealth from the elites who had controlled it for centuries. In the case of Guatemala, Arbenz bought back land left to lie fallow by the United Fruit Company, an American corporation, which had "purchased" it for a song. It cried foul when Guatemala tried to buy it back for the same price.
If Chavez is distributing new oil monies that are not already in the hands of the elites, then what are they so upset about?
The first thing is the simple affront to their sense of entitlement in having a "monkey" as some have called him, at the head of their government. Despite the centuries of profound racial mixing of all four races throughout Latin America, an agreed-upon fiction
exists: The upper-classes consider themselves to be white, and everybody else is either an indio or a negro_. If the whites are feeling kindly towards los indios then they call them los inditos the little Indians, as if the diminutive could be anything but patronizing.
A quick look at Latin America both past and present reveals that only a minuscule number of leaders have been from the lower classes, and even fewer from dark-skinned communities. Benito Juarez, Mexico's great 19th century reformer was a dark-skinned "Indian" from Oaxaca whose detractors also called him a "black monkey."
Their second objection to Chavez is the obvious one: If the country is flush with oil money, why aren't the upper-classes entitled to it, especially since this has always been the case? The SUV-driving sock lady lawyer springs to mind. Why is the economy of Venezuela so bad that she and others like her are without jobs? Is the attempt by the elites to cripple the economy to blame for their plight? Or are Chavez's policies tipping so far in favor of the poor that the traditional elites are locked out? And what about that bank scandal?
Finally, there is the matter of shifting power. If Chavez succeeds in changing the balance of power in Venezuela to one with truly broad representation and succeeds in creating a literate and even well-educated society with full employment, the masses will be harder for the elites to control. Capitalism depends on the availability of cheap labor and uneducated, disenfranchised masses. Chavez's success could create an egalitarian society that has the power to resist the United States's hegemony. It sounds like a pipe dream, no?
Looking at the United States today, at the paucity of women and people of color in the highest levels of government; at a Senate that does not have a single African-American and at a U.S. Supreme Court without a single Hispanic, it may be too much to hope that Chavez alone can work a democratic miracle in Venezuela.
Dr.Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She may be reached at email@example.com