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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

The essential lesson of Chávez

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is not an angel. Neither is he the tyrant and dictator that some have tried to paint him. The most recent event in his tumultuous political career -- an overwhelming victory over opponents who tried to oust him in a recall vote -- certainly validates the view that he has won the hearts of a majority of Venezuelans.

As writer Bart Jones said in a personal assessment after reporting on the election for NCR, “Poor people have risen up and taken power in Venezuela. That’s the essential lesson of Chávez, whether he’s a good president or a bad president.”

Serious questions remain, not least among them whether Venezuela can overcome the deep divisions resulting from the battles around Chávez and whether the elite in Venezuelan society will be able to accept the new political power of the poor in that society.

Some detractors of Chávez -- and they are many, ranging across the spectrum of thinkers and observers -- claim that his dispersal of oil revenues for education and health care is a short-term solution to long-standing and deep problems. If the oil money dries up or if Chávez decides to do an about-face on his commitment to helping the poor, that criticism may prove correct. But even if it is short-lived, what is wrong with poor people becoming literate and gaining access to health care? How could they not be better off, in even some minimal way, in the long run?

As Venezuelan political scientist Edgardo Lander remarked to NCR about Chávez’s use of oil revenues to improve conditions of the poorest sectors of the country: “Why is that populist? Why isn’t that a state fulfilling its responsibility?”

We think the Chávez victory will give added legitimacy to similar impulses evident in Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador and other Latin American countries.

Leftist movements are rising throughout Latin America as a reaction against the failed “free market revolution” instituted more than a decade ago and backed by the United States, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and others.

Leaders like Chávez, who threaten the status quo and pay more than lip service to the masses of desperately poor in Latin America, have little connection with the Bush administration. In fact, this administration has been hostile toward Chávez and has used the previously little-known National Endowment for Democracy to fund opposition to him (NCR, April 2).

It has not worked.

The United States needs a new approach to Latin America, a region where it has historically backed dictators and death-squad governments. It needs to recognize that Latin America is the region with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, and that leaders such as Chávez are a response to that.

“We are gold medalists in inequality,” Chávez told reporters three days before his victory.

Chávez represents a new model to address the mass poverty in Latin America, a model that is neither communism nor capitalism but something in between. It looks something like a market economy with a refreshing sense of obligation to the least of those in society.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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