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Not all he was made out to be

08 March 2013

President Hugo Chavez deserves credit for championing the poor, says Nick Thorpe


Both hero and villain: President Hugo Chavez, seen in 2009

Both hero and villain: President Hugo Chavez, seen in 2009

I was visiting Venezuela in April 2002 to write a feature on eco-tourism, when something unexpected happened. President Hugo Chavez was deposed in a coup, after mass protests in Caracas.

Following the turmoil on television, from my cabin in the rainforest near Angel Falls, was a surreal and confusing experience. On the face of it, the left-wing President seemed to have resigned after a bloody demonstration over his attempts to impose party control on the state oil company.

I remember watching emotive footage of housewives banging tin pans against the chain-link fence of the airport, as a distant plane took to the skies. "The jackal is fleeing!" they shouted. I asked my tour guides to help me get to the nearest city, so that I could compile a report for The Scotsman.

As middle-class business people, the tour guides were mostly critical of the President: I heard much about his interminable and often bizarre daily lectures on the state TV, and how his opposition to US capitalism was slowing down the economy.

Others claimed that he had deliberately armed his "Bolivarian Circles" - neighbourhood committees, named after the South American liberator Simon Bolivar, which he had set up on the urging of Fidel Castro. Now, these gangs were killing unarmed protesters, a businessman said.

But in Ciudad Bolivar, a city of nearly 300,000 on the Orinoco River, the poorer people whom I spoke to in workers' cafés looked incredulous when I told them that the President had fled.

"Don't believe everything you see on the television," said the waitress. "Chavez has done more than anyone else for the poor of this country. All this trouble was provoked by the rich. They wanted Chavez out, and they stage-managed the demonstration."

The Bolivarian Circles were not armed cells, she insisted. "They are just like unions for the poorest people - the only opportunity they ever had for better conditions. Now we've got the capitalists in power again, it's only a matter of time before they sell the whole country," she said gloomily.

THE capitalists, however, were not in power for long. After two days, the new regime disintegrated, and the coup was reversed by loyal palace guards. President Chavez was back in power, on a wave of popular support. It seemed as if the women banging pans at the airport perimeter fence were either mistaken, or planted there for effect by the opposition.

The President had not fled at all - he had not even resigned. He had been in the palace the whole time, as was later revealed by an Irish film crew, who happened to have been there, making a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The resulting production, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is a sobering lesson in how powerful interests can use the media to manipulate public opinion - and a reminder never to swallow uncritically what you see on the television. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to pass judgement on this most flamboyant and controversial of presidents. His legacy is not a simple one: he was neither a saviour nor a brutal dictator, but something in between.

ON THE one hand, it is hard to condone his ruthless centralising of power, his shutting down of private TV stations, his requisitioning of land and businesses, and his often-questionable choice of political allies, from Saddam Hussein to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"He believed that his enemy's enemy was his friend," tweeted the socialist songwriter Billy Bragg on Wednesday. "And that is never a pretty sight, whoever does it."

President Chavez tampered with the constitution in order to extend his third term of office, and Human Rights Watch has criticised his "concentration of power and erosion of human-rights protections, [which] had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticised the President or thwarted his political agenda".

There is no doubt that he liked to whip up divisions rather than heal them - constantly casting neo-liberal countries as enemies, and condoning the seizing of domestic property and land by the poor from the rich. His Bolivarian revolution was never going to be easy, he said - and, as a military man, he treated it as war.

But he always said that he was a democrat at heart, and his election victories - 56 per cent of the vote in 1998, 60 per cent in 2000, 54 per cent last October - spoke for themselves of the large popular support he enjoyed from the ordinary people whom he lifted out of poverty.

The gains in health care, housing, and employment were impressive. The percentage of households in poverty fell from 55 per cent in 1995, to 26.4 per cent in 2009. Unemployment, officially at 15 per cent when he was sworn into office, was 7.8 per cent by June 2009. To the poor, he was unequivocally a hero.

Critics say that he could have achieved none of this without requisitioning the huge oil reserves in Venezuela, which is the world's 11th-largest crude-oil exporter. But others argue that poverty-reduction is exactly what a country's wealth should be used for.

Whatever history decides, President Chavez leaves a changed political landscape, which includes a formidable bloc of Latin American countries - including Cuba, Ecuador, and Bolivia - now offering an alternative to neo-liberalism that is arguably closer to the upside-down values of Christ.

Nick Thorpe is a freelance travel writer.

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