“Hugo Chavez has had an eventful life,” writes Zachary Barker. “Having survived two coup attempts, his next struggle to may be his toughest. He has cancer.”
By the standards of many politicians today President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez has had an eventful life. He rose to prominence as a paratrooper, eventually leading a coup attempt against the Venezuelan elected government in 1992. After being released from prison for his role in the coup, Chavez seemingly remade himself from a reactionary soldier into a politician. Only six years after Chavez was released he won the 1998 Presidential election. To this day he rules Venezuela, surviving a coup attempt in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004. His next struggle to stay in power may be his toughest. The President has cancer.
Adhering to his socialist vision known as Bolivarianism (a nod towards independence hero Simon Bolivar), Hugo Chavez in power has continuously sought to use the state as a tool to cure many of Venezuela’s enduring social problems. Under Chavez’s direction the government has launched vast social programmes to provide free health care and education. This bought him much support from poorer quarters of Venezuelan society which has consistently been displayed at election times. Chavez has consistently quashed criticism for moving to nationalise the nation’s oil industry, by justifying that his government needs proceeds from industry to pay for these programmes.
President Hugo Chavez is famous for his charisma. He focuses his silver tongue on his countrymen (ordinarily) through his weekly live television broadcast, called Alo Presidente (Hello President). His speaking style is often energetic. He often changes his speaking style quickly to start off in an angry tirade, to finish telling jokes about his political enemies in an often clown-like fashion. He once denounced oil executives as living in “luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whiskey”. His passionate and often entertaining style of communication has inevitably given him much media attention, allowing him to become the poster boy of many leftist circles the world over.
Chavez’s rule has not been without criticism however. There are many signs that show that despite Venezuela being one of the richest countries in terms of oil reserves in the world, it is in serious debt. The Economist Intelligence unit estimates that Venezuelan government debt will hit 35% of gross domestic product. Hugo Chavez’s moves to nationalise the oil industry has been cited as part of the problem. It is widely believed that appointments of Chavez loyalists in the state oil company PVSDA has resulted in mismanagement, causing money to haemorrhage away. Hugo Chavez’s drive to nationalise hundreds of businesses in the country and his generally hostile attitude towards business, have discouraged foreign investment. This investment is urgently needed to pay the country’s mounting debt.
Particularly since the aborted coup in 2002 the President’s grip on Venezuelan society has noticeably tightened. A damning report written in 2008 by Human Rights Watch discusses the expansion of the President’s power in detail. In the report Chavez is accused of influencing the Supreme Court, subjecting human rights organisers to police harassment, restricting the independent power of organised labour and harassing opposition opinion in the media. In March 2003 Hugo Chavez also issued a decree to speed up the training of his long planned militia. This was perhaps a measure to reassure the President at a time that his personal popularity is near its lowest. Government officials say this force will eventually be 2 million strong.
Hugo Chavez justifies these seemingly aggressive moves, as countermoves against an opposition not afraid to use force and backed by the aggressive US “empire” to the north. His position has struck a chord with fellow US adversaries the Castro brothers in Cuba. The Venezuelan- Cuban relationship has deepened to the point where Venezuela supplies cheap oil to Cuba in return for medical aid. Cuban intelligence and security officials have also been working to improve Venezuela’s intelligence services.
The successes of Hugo Chavez are often exaggerated and his authoritarian moves are too overlooked, by his allies and a growing fan base in mainly leftist parties and movements throughout the world. Influential liberals in Hollywood such as Sean Penn and Oliver Stone have also made supportive statements of Chavez. His refusal to even sign some powers over to his Vice President before he left for Havana to undergo treatment for cancer is perhaps a telling insight into his fixation on power. Comparatively prosperous Brazil proves that the dangerous centralisation of power need not be the price of progress. Leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor have not been brought down by the machinations of the “empire”. Perhaps there is some truth to what Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”. This author strongly believes that if Chavez survives cancer, his thirst for power will likely grow.