Many of those interested in politics or how our world works will be familiar with the anecdote about the diplomat from Maoist China on a visit to Paris some decades ago. When asked how he thought the 1789 French Revolution had worked out he answered: “It’s far, far too early to say.”
It would be reasonable to adopt a similarly reserved judgement on Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela and was that country’s president for the last 14 years. He died on Tuesday after battling cancer for nearly two years.
It is probably reasonable too to dismiss the extreme views held by his greatest champions or his greatest enemies.
To some of those Bolivians who returned him to office three times in elections deemed fair by international observers he was something approaching a national saviour. That impression is strengthened by scenes of supporters, especially the poor, publicly expressing grief in a way that seems far more genuine and spontaneous than some of the choreographed scenes provoked by the death of socialist or communist — or religious — leaders in other parts of the world.
His charisma was such that after leading an abortive coup in 1992 he was pardoned and elected president in 1998. He was re-elected three times and survived a coup led by disgruntled military officers in 2002.
Despite this he was regarded by some of his opponents as an unfortunately typical Latin American strongman with sub-Stalinist tendencies who ruled through force of personality and played light and fast with the principles of democracy. His trenchant opposition to the United Sates and that country’s role in the region meant his opponents had a staunch and powerful ally more than willing to use its influence in the internal affairs of any country offering a toehold to a left-wing leadership.
A few things can be said with certainty about Hugo Chavez though.
It is almost unimaginable that European politics could throw up such a leader today, one who built his power base by persistently declaring his intention to end inequity and poverty. Despite his idiosyncrasies, including hosting day-long, haranguing television talk shows, he poured oil revenues into social programmes ranging from state-run food markets to free adult education schemes. Official statistics showed poverty rates declined from 50% at the beginning of his term in 1999 to 32% in the second half of 2011. Though many of these programmes no longer function he managed to convince a majority of his compatriots that his campaigns against poverty and inequity were core beliefs rather than a convenient way to win mass support.
Another thing that can be said about Chavez and his political career is this — and you don’t have to admire him, agree with him or support his policies to acknowledge this — is that any leader who can convince people that he is sincere about ending social equity and poverty will generate a huge and loyal following. Despite all of our cynicism and our almost self-destructive celebration of materialism the idea of justice, especially social justice, remains a hugely powerful motivating force in the psyche of the great majority of humanity. This is true despite our inability to achieve it and that failure remains one of the great mysteries of humanity.
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