In an enormous, varied and colourful life, Hugo Chavez was a product of poverty in Venezuela, which like many young people in Latin America led him into the armed forces and a growing sense of anger at the social injustice of a resource-rich but poor country, and ultimately bringing him into politics. Despite the failure of the 1992 coup attempt and his subsequent imprisonment he became phenomenally popular, was elected president, re-elected 3 more times, brought in a new constitution, improved the lives of the very poorest in his country, and forged a very special place on the world stage for Venezuela.
There are two things that stand out.
The Alba Pact between Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and other countries in the region was a polar opposite of the US Free Market Economics that has traditionally been imposed on the poorest people in Latin America. This process allowed Venezuelan oil to support poor neighbouring economies and Cuban medical help brought healthcare for the first time to millions. The only condition of this process was that each country had to reduce inequality and conquer poverty; a far cry from the economics of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s imposition of structural adjustment programs on the entire continent.
But beyond economics Chavez understood as few other American leaders have ever enunciated, the bitter history of the oppression of indigenous cultures and languages throughout Latin America. It was no accident that the one gift he gave to Obama was a copy of “Open Veins in Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. Chavez articulated the pain of the cultural oppression by the Spanish conquistadors and the landowners and multinational corporations, and this enduring change in the cultural politics of the whole continent will survive.
Chavez became a huge figure on the world stage because he was the polar opposite of everything, especially what the two Bush administrations aimed for in Latin America and he forged alliances to try to bring about a different narrative in world politics – not easy to do, and he was often unfairly criticised as being some kind of dictator. It is a strange dictator that has a mass media in Venezuela in permanent opposition to him, a wealthy elite who regularly condemned him and a new constitution and independent judicial system. Perhaps our most appropriate memory will be the verve, joy and success of the Bolivarian youth orchestra whose visits to London have been met with such acclaim as was Chavez during his one visit to London on which many of us remember so fondly in 2006.
Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour MP for Islington North