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Two cheers for Chavez

The controversial Venezuelan leader, who died Tuesday, did more good than bad – and the good he did was extraordinary.    

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (Victor Soares / CC 3.0)

Any political leader who buddies up conspicuously with Ahmadinejad and Assad, showing indifference to their victims and freedom-seeking opponents at home, loses his shot at dying a hero, at least with me. So, like most left-liberals, I have mixed feelings about the legacy of Hugo Chavez. His alliance with the Iranian and Syrian regimes were the worst things that could be said against him, so I’ll deal with them first: They are black marks on his record, but they do not blacken it entirely. They do not make  Chavez a moral untouchable – because most respected modern Western leaders, certainly in the United States and Israel, have buddied up with any number of dictators across Asia, Africa and Latin America who made A’jad’s and even Assad’s crimes look tame.

There is one other capital offense that’s been associated with Chavez, but this charge is pretty hollow: that he fomented anti-Semitism. He was certainly hostile to Israel, comparing its bombing campaign in the Second Lebanon War to the Holocaust, which was typically reckless Chavez demagoguery, and breaking off relations with Israel after Operation Cast Lead, which I can’t fault him for on moral grounds. Regarding the claim that he encouraged the harassment of Venezuelan Jews, it’s based on a raid on a Caracas Jewish school by police who said they were looking for evidence in a crime, and the accusation by opposition journalists and local Jewish activists that state intelligence spied on a Jewish organization it considered a Mossad front. In all, I’d say that falls well short of the evidence necessary to call Chavez an anti-Semite. Also, it’s nothing compared to the truly vicious anti-Semitism practiced by some of the fascist South American generals of the past whom Israel did business with. Furthermore, Arabs in Israel suffer incomparably worse bigotry and abuse in a week than Jews in Venezuela did during Chavez’s 14 years as president. So I think the accusation against him of anti-Semitism not only doesn’t stand up, it backfires.

There are lots of other things to be said against him – he was an autocrat who took over the legislature, courts, media and unions; a demagogue who blamed all of Venezuela’s problems on the U.S. and “squalid” capitalists at home; a megalomaniac who gave rambling, four-hour speeches on TV. Also, he left his country with a monstrous deficit, systemic corruption and basically one industry, oil.

But he was not a tyrant. He was not an invader or war-maker. He did not take over any foreign land or nation. He did not run torture chambers or prison camps. And though he was an authoritarian leader, he was not an absolute dictator: Venezuela had free elections which Chavez won not with 99 percent of the vote, but with 55 to 65 percent.

Even at his worst, he was far, far better than the old Latin American death squad leaders so beloved of the United States, Israel and some other Western democracies. And if he left Venezuela in a macroeconomic mess, that’s the way he found it in 1998 when he was first elected president.

Against all his sins, however, including his reprehensible support for Ahmadinejad and Assad, Chavez had one overarching, world-historic achievement: He did more to reduce poverty and economic inequality than just about any national leader in modern history. And in South America, that is the all-important thing.

He spent much of the country’s oil revenues on food, schools and health care for the poor, cutting poverty by half, extreme poverty by 70 percent and leaving Venezuela with the smallest income gap in South America. He inspired the continent’s ‘pink tide” – the spread of left-wing governments to Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile and Peru, a rebellion against the dictates of international banks and a shift toward a fairer, more humane sharing of the wealth.

For that, Chavez was adored by his country’s poor people,  as can be seen in the reports of the reactions in Venezuela to his death. From the New York Times, which wrote that Chavez’s “fundamental legacy was intangible: he has changed the way Venezuelans think about themselves and their country.”

[E]normous crowds thronged the streets on Wednesday to watch Mr. Chávez’s modest brown wood coffin wrapped in a Venezuelan flag, being carried through the capital, Caracas.

[H]undreds of thousands of mourners — many dressed in his movement’s characteristic red shirt — chanted, cried, tossed flowers or held up cellphones to photograph the coffin as it passed.

“Chávez opened our eyes,” said Carlos Pérez, 58, a cookie salesman who drove into town with his wife and took part in the caravan. “We used to be stepped on. We felt humiliated.”

Chavez raised the standard of living and self-esteem of the millions who needed this the most, and not just in Venezuela but across South America and Cuba. He was one of history’s greatest champions of the have-nots – and he didn’t kill anybody in the process. That record outweighs all his sins; he was above all a potent, non-violent force who changed his nation and his whole beleaguered continent dramatically for the better.

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    1. ronit

      oh, this saddens me. you’re using the “at least he wasn’t as bad as…” argument? sounds familiar.

      how about we just call him all the positive and negative things that he was. your summary of these various aspects of the leader is good enough and they don’t need to be reduced to pluses and minuses to see which side of some goodness/badness scale he comes out on.

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      Anyone who compares George Bush to the devil has my applause.

      It’s annoying to see the US press, in its ignorance, lumping Chavez in with the world’s mass-murdering dictators. Dictator he was, mass murderer not.

      Bush and Obama are responsible for more deaths than Chavez.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      Chavez left his country in a macroeconomic mess despite the fact that oil prices went up ten-fold between 1998 and now. He also created an ongoing dependence of a vast number of social and economic programs on oil revenue that is historically unreliable. Give the system Chavez created five years and it will collapse but I am sure it will be the fault of the evil capitalists, bankers, Americans or whoever and not this sainted man with good intentions that made an economic crisis a certainty in the future. When it does happen just don’t say that it was completely unforeseeable and the champion of the have-nots Chavez shouldn’t be blamed.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      I think you should strongly reconsider your paragraph on antisemitism in this piece (though I agree for the most part with your bottom line about his overall domestic reforms). The JTA article you linked suggests that the regime crossed the line from anti-Israel rhetoric into anti-Semitism on more than a few occasions. The investigations of the Jewish community because it was a Mossad front is a claim that should be treated with skepticism. It could be true that there were Mossad agents in it, but it could be equally true that he was using his anti-Israel stance to provide political cover for keeping tabs on the Jewish community, which had many bourgeois and upper-class members who tended to oppose his policies in the first place.

      Also, saying “But Israeli Arabs have it worse” and “Israel dealt with worse antisemites in South America in the past” doesn’t refute charges of anti-semitsm against Chavez…isn’t this the argument used by the Israeli right to absolve the status quo treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians? “At least we’re not as bad as the Lebanese/Syrians/Jordanians”?

      Reply to Comment
      • Emenike

        Well done Larry,Chavez spoke the truth and worked very hard to improve the life’s of the poor in venezuala.The revolution could have been less messy but the Yankees were constantly trying to undermine him like they did with the Castro brothers in Cuba.Keep up the good work.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Kokos

      Ben, Larry Derfner is a ranter who writes about many things he knows little about (antisemitism is only one of them) with ridiculous confidence, or shall I say cockiness. He still makes for an entertaining read, and I find myself agreeing with him every so often, but engaging with him over intellectual or rhetorical nuances is pointless. I agree and disagree with many things on this site, but hardly anything here gets more superficial than Derfner.
      Seems like you’re new here 🙂

      Reply to Comment
      • I’m not sure I agree with you, but I have to admit you make a tightly-reasoned, well-substantiated argument.

        Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      Chavez was just another anti-democratic demagogue who used “the poor” as a stepping stone for amassing power and creating a cult of the personality around himself. He is just a more modern incarnation of Juan Peron in Argentina who also squandered his country’s wealth while doing a little to help the downtrodden in country while mainly spending his time stealing money and creating hate and divisions among his population. His legacy was to lead to the country tearing itself apart and ultimately the dirty war with thousands of innocent people dead.
      Things haven’t gotten that bad in Chavez country because he has the cusion of oil money to prop up the state.}
      Chavez cares about the poor as much as Lenin and Stalin did. Juan Cole even asked why Chavez who is supposedly a “socialist” aligned himself with anti-socialist, reactionary Iran. Answer is simple…his alliance with Iran allows him to strut on the interntional stage as an “anti-Imperialist”.
      He has no interest in really helping anyone except himself and getting revenge against the old oligarchs of his country.
      Tony Karon once praised Castro’s Cuba saying “it is true every one there has to wait in line for hours for his weekly egg, every lives in fear of the secret police and that the country is stagnant, but they average Cuban is proud of sticking his finger in Uncle Sam’s eye”. REALLY? Do most Cubans spend their time worrying about American foreign policy. Just because Tony Karon doesn’t like it doesn’t everyone else thinks the same way. Typical ‘progressive’ haugtiness.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tito

        Peron and Peronists were civilians, unarmed victims of Argentina’s dirty war, which was planned and carried out by the fascist Junta with Yankee support. The milicos were not tortured nor thrown out still alive to the Plata river.

        Reply to Comment
    7. rsgengland

      Chavez did what all tin pot populist semi-dictators do.
      He spent all the countries reserves on helping his constituency, by plundering the wealth generating middle classes of their assets.
      It has been proven time and again that if you destroy the means of wealth generation, it will result in poverty for all in the future.
      Every country that has mineral wealth and uses it for poverty reduction, finds that after a while the revenues reduce, and the poverty returns.
      The only way to reduce poverty is to invest in people, and invest in people who can create wealth by their industry.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Tzila

      I salutate you Mr Larry Derfner for your courage to write and publish this article, It’s
      not a small thing if we think about the context were you live
      I must say that I don’t specifically condemn Chávez for all the ¨sins ¨you expose in your article,because the propaganda against him and his government was so important and the media so concentrated as we know, only serving the intereses of the political and economic forces that Chávez unmasked.
      Kol akavod lehá !<

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks very much, Tzila.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Chavez was very loved by the poor, they say. It was demonstrated in the term elections, every time.
      He was in a way a latin american Robin Hood. But when all it’s said and done, he did one thing that lights a very strong Red Warning Light in my radar.

      He cursed Israel.

      He said it loud and clear in front of the world news media, and it is recorded in video too.

      He’s fate is settled, and most troublesome, the fate of his nation is linked to him, as their ruler.


      Reply to Comment