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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Chavez: A legacy beyond charisma

Reflecting on the legacy of a leader who enjoyed popularity and dignity at home but faced intractable campaign of demonization and subterfuge abroad.
 Going by the way Hugo Chavez's rule in Venezuela had been covered for decades, I had expected celebratory headlines in mainstream media throughout the world today after his death. The headlines, however, were more somber with the websites of  The New York Times, Washington Post,  BBC and CNN all carrying short and to-the-point headlines: "Venezuela's Chavez dies at 58", more or less.

The theme of the coverage was also remarkably similar: Chavez was a popular but divisive figure sworn to harming American interests and his abrupt departure has left Venezuela with uncertainty that could lead to instability and turmoil. And 'transition' featured everywhere regarding the expected outcome for Venezuela now. Keeping the issue of what will happen to Venezuela for later, let me first tell why I admired and even revered Chavez.

Chávez on a visit to Guatemala (Photo courtesy: Agência Brasil, through Wikimedia Commons)

First, the image of Chavez as the 'Anti-American icon' was more a creation of media in the west more than  the result of his deeds as such. His bombastic rhetoric and his prompt and aggressive measures, like the expulsion of diplomats in response to brazen Israeli invasion of Gaza, were characteristically provocative but if hypocrisy and vested interests had not prevented, even European and North American rulers would have responded similarly to Israel's murderous drive (remember what Sarkozy and Obama talked about Netanyahu in a leaked private conversation). If the other rulers in world cannot live up to their moral obligation and willfully back the murderers thereby changing the meaning itself of morality, than it is not Chavez's fault.

With pro-Americanism as the infallible human value to be cherished, the west (the governments and the media, to be precise) lumped Chavez to the arbitrary 'anti-American' category with likes of North Korean, Cuban and Iranian regimes but his similarity to those other regimes ended at opposing American interests while the dissimilarities stretched endlessly. While anti-Americanism is not bad in itself given the conduct of the Americans in different parts of the world, Chavez's difference with the others was that he chose to fight his detractors in the west in their own terms, using the instruments of democracy and challenging the attempts at violently overthrowing him. As a reference, while the pro-Americanism of Saudi variety is inherently bad (e.g. for breeding religious extremism creating fertile grounds for rise of terrorism and promoting sectarian bloodbath everywhere) anti-Americanism of  North Korean variety is equally bad (for using the 'threat from American empire' as an excuse to starve people). Again, it was no fault of Chavez that he was lumped with North Korea for refusing to behave the Saudi monarch's way.

Show of solidarity: Chávez with fellow South American presidents of Argentina and Brazil. (Photo courtesy: Agência Brasil, through Wikimedia Commons)

Second, he could have followed footsteps of Putin (while geopolitical moves of Putin appear perfectly justifiable in a world where US is the trend-setter, his domestic record as the post-Soviet democratic leader is arguably grim, not least because of his patronage to the Kadyrovites in Chechnya) after consolidating power to develop a 'local' version of democracy. But he never did it. Despite all media claims of Chavez ruling with iron-fist, the reality was always different in Venezuela.

Coming to the crux of the debate as to whether Chavez's rule was good or bad for Venezuelans, let's start with common allegation against him that he 'sprinkled oil-money to prop up his socialist economy as well as to promote it in neighborhood'.Keeping the pejorative connotation of 'sprinkling' apart, is the attempt of a state to redistribute wealth that bad? The problem is, the wisdom manufactured in US and propagated throughout the world says that any transfer of wealth from bottom up to concentrate it in the hands of few people is 'good' and the reverse obviously bad. Chavez was guilty of attempting the latter. His bigger crime was that he showed it was possible to do that without resorting to authoritarian means and in fact his model of governance stands as a viable alternative to the dominant one in today's world. Today, while Chavez's model of governance is derided in the west for resembling too much with the socialist/communist regimes of the past, it is praised in the developing world for being sufficiently different from those so as to become socialist but non-authoritarian and viable in the longer term.

Now coming to what will happen to Venezuela, I am quite optimistic. And so are the pundits in the west. But the irony lies in the different reasons behind the optimism. While being an unflinching admirer of Chavez, I never looked forward to seeing Chavez's rule stretched for decades. I do believe his departure now was unfortunate and the challenges ahead are staggering but in the ruins of devastation also lies the opportunity of rebuilding. 'Chavismo' as it was called both reverently and pejoratively, legacy of Chavez's rule was so far a very personal one. Now it is no longer personal, either it has to morph into institutional one or has to simply wane to an unceremonious end. It is in this regard that the imminent transition period is so crucial for Venezuelans: manage well and ensure harvest for decades to come or let the gains of Chavez era to evaporate in front of the eyes. While I am in no position to assess which outcome is more likely, I ardently wish the former one.

The west, on the other hand wishfully thinks that with loss of the leader with larger-than-life persona, people in Chavez's camp will now start an internecine conflict thereby enabling the opposition to catapult to power. Once the ardent opponents of Chavez are at power, the institutions built by Chavez can then be dismantled swiftly. For them, it is an opportunity of an era and they will do everything possible to make sure that people in Chavez's camp do not unite. Meanwhile, the praise and glorification of the opposition will continue.

The fact that I had to resort to such a lengthy circumlocution in a piece intended to condole the Venezuelans to the loss of their leader shows the complexity surrounding the Venezuelan reality today. Complexities, challenges and states of flux are not necessarily bad in lives of people as well as those of societies and nations. Thus it is my hope that rather than vanishing in thin air, the accomplishments in Venezuela made under leadership of Chavez (particularly those for the vast number of people at the bottom of prosperity hierarchy), will be institutionalized. My best wishes to both Venezuelan people and the team of Nicolas Maduro which has now taken the charge.

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