Shut Up (About) Chavez

It gets tiresome to hear the one-sided media coverage of Hugo Chavez. Yes, he's authoritarian. He's also abrasive, arrogant, stubborn, and all too human. But he knows what happened to leaders in Iran and Guatemala and Chile and Haiti over the past half-century when they tried to defy the western world by nationalizing oil and other industries. He's influenced by the memory of the US-backed attempt to depose him in 2002. And he can see the effects of unregulated multinational companies in Nigeria, where in 2004 80% of the revenue from the oil industry went to only 1% of the population, and only 2% of Shell Oil's employees were from the local population.

Chavez has alienated the wealthy, the business establishment, thousands of upper-class student protestors, and, perhaps worst of all for him, the media. But the mainstream media rarely speaks for the poor majority. Chavez has instituted a literacy program, land-acquisition policies that benefit the poor, job training for unskilled workers, free health care, and manufacturing cooperatives which give the poor an active role in business development. He was democratically elected, and recent polls still place him about 20 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger.

The Venezuelan leader's popularity is summarized by human rights activist Medea Benjamin:

"Walk through poor barrios in Venezuela and you'll hear the same stories over and over. The very poor can now go to a designated home in the neighborhood to pick up a hot meal every day. The elderly have monthly pensions that allow them to live with dignity. Young people can take advantage of greatly expanded free college programs. And with 13,000 Cuban doctors spread throughout the country and reaching over half the population, the poor now have their own family doctors on call 24-hours a day."

Opposition to Chavez comes from those with connections to the old political elite: the Venezuelan business community, the Chamber of Commerce (Fedecamaras), and the major union federation CTV, who used their control over the media to disparage Chavez for economic problems and communist ties. Many officials and journalists in the U.S. dismiss him as a troublesome dictator. An editor of the leading El Nacional newspaper said Chavez and his cabinet "just want to steal and get rich." Even some of the Venezuelan poor resent his attempts to spread his influence with anti-poverty programs outside the country.

Ironically, Chavez was criticized for two initiatives that most Americans would like to see implemented in the U.S. -- health care and increased oil company taxes. He is maligned for his friendship with Fidel Castro, even though some 10,000 Cuban doctors and health care workers came to Venezuela in return for oil. His industry reforms included a doubling of oil company taxes. He also opposes U.S. efforts to implement free trade agreements that would surrender the country's raw materials in return for expensive products from abroad. Perhaps most significantly, Chavez is feared because of his growing independence in a country whose vast oil reserves are coveted by the north.

One doesn't have to be a socialist to cheer for equal opportunity for hard-working citizens of any country. According to the U.S. Department of State, the income gap in Venezuela decreased between 2003 and 2005, with the Gini coefficient (a measure of income disparity from 0 (equal) to 1 (unequal)) dropping from .618 in 2003 to .514 in 2005. Chavez speaks, however noisily, for the poor. Most of the media speaks for the people with money.

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