This piece was first published before Chavez's death in January 2013 so the tenses may be wrong but the sentiment stays the same
The ascent of Hugo Chávez to become his country’s President is a remarkable personal story. Chávez had an impoverished childhood and was raised in a mud house in an obscure corner of Venezuela, a country that has long been controlled by the wealthy urban elites. He first came to national prominence as a young military officer who led a failed coup against the corrupt government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. After spending a couple of years in prison and being written off by his opponents as a noisy, idealistic buffoon, Chávez built a popular democratic movement and was subsequently elected President in 1998.
Much has been made of Chávez’s voluble personality and he is indeed firmly in the tradition of charismatic Latin American leaders. But Chávez’s success in winning a series of democratic elections and referendums owes more to his abilities as an astute politician and the genuine popular appeal of his policies.
In contrast to his predecessors, Chávez has dedicated his political career to using Venezuela’s wealth to helping the poor majority of the country’s citizens. The main source of funding for Chávez’s social programmes is Venezuela’s vast oil resources. In 2012, OPEC certified that Venezuela’s oil reserves were greater than even Saudi Arabia’s. Soon after coming to power, Chávez nationalised a majority stake in the Venezuelan oil industry, in order to secure the revenues for investment in the country, rather than see the profits drain out via foreign oil companies. Chávez has poured these resources into improving the poor’s access to education, healthcare, food, energy and decent housing through his programme of “Bolivarian Missions”, named after his hero, the Latin American independence fighter, Simón Bolívar.
Amongst the many successes of the “Missions” are an 18% fall in the infant mortality rate, a 30% fall in poverty and bringing literacy to over one million under-educated adult Venezuelans. These programmes have engendered fierce loyalty to Chávez amongst the broad mass of previously ignored Venezuelans. They have consistently rallied to his support when he has come under pressure from his opponents, such as when he was kidnapped during a coup attempt in 2002 and subjected to a recall referendum in 2004.
Chávez, of course, is not the saint he is sometimes held up to be by some leftists around the world. There are legitimate reasons to criticise his rule. Considerable funds have been wasted through inefficient management and corruption remains a problem in Venezuela. Police reform has failed and crime has increased significantly. Chávez has also consorted too closely with FARC, the Colombian terrorist and drug trafficking organisation, and unsavoury rulers from around the world such as Russia’s Putin and Iran’s Ahmedinejad.
But, for all of his faults, and if his time is at an end, we should salute Hugo Chávez for keeping alive an alternative political vision. At a time when most of the world is still trapped in the market-dominated mindset that led it into economic crisis, Chávez has sought to use his country’s resources to improve the lives of the many rather than merely fund the excessive consumption of the few.