Hugo Chavez: A maker of history

By Johan Galtung

That his life and his deeds had black dots is part of the story; but that should not block seeing the greatness of a maker of history.

First, in his own society, Venezuela, he lifted the bottom people up from misery, into economic wellness, political participation, cultural pride (of their often African, or Indian, blood), social dignity; much beyond Gini coefficients to measure increasing equality. Even the rich human rights language is too bland to reflect all that.

Second, he did the same for Latin America; he helped lift the bottom countries up, also under the name of the iconic Simón Bolívar: Cuba and Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, Brazil to mention some.

Of course the two policies are related. Colombia with its immense record of violence 1948-2013, is a pariah country and can only be lifted up by lifting its bottom up, attacking flagrant inequality. Chávez and his fellow leaders Castro and Ortega, Correa and Moráles, Lula, are on line. The leadership of the continent, with Kirchner from Argentina, and the Salvador Allende icon from Chile! A formidable team; well beyond the European leaders trying to manage their crises.

The late essayist-journalist Christopher Hitchens interviewed Chávez some years ago, asking him about similarities and differences with Fidel. Chávez answered that when it came to US imperialism they were of one mind, in complete solidarity. But then he added: “However,

“Fidel is a communist who believes in a one party state headed by the communist party; I am a democrat to the left, believing in a multi-party state and free elections;

“Fidel is a marxist who believes in the public, state sector of the economy only; I believe in a mixed economy, public and private;

“Fidel is an atheist, believing in scientific atheism; I am a Catholic and take note of the fact that Jesus lived among the poor.”

Too dissonant for some Anglo-American minds to handle?

Very meaningful in Latin America, however, particularly when so many leave the Catholic Church, joining the evangelicals. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 as political program: not lifting the bottom up to Heaven, but to a better reality in this world. Many countries have the oil money to do so, and the majority of poor to give them democratic legitimacy. But Chávez did it, inspiring and sharing with other Latin American leaders and peoples, and beyond, the world.

Who is the better Christian: Chávez or a forgettable German with an 11-12th century brain, retired, being tired? Fighting a liberation theology as close to Chávez’ heart as distant from his, if he has any?

Leaving that aside: Is Venezuela economically sustainable?

The economy is in trouble, lack of investments etc., debt to the Chinese piling up (a minor point as long as oil flows to China rather than to a USA now turning tar sands into sink holes). The key factor is to make former marginalized, excluded slum dwellers contribute to the economy, strengthening both production, supply, and demand.

Many feel threatened by the poor and by the race factor, also Chávez himself, coming up: “Will they treat us the way we treated them”? And, will they outcompete us? Some will sabotage, too late to kill Chávez, but maybe some of the economy. Many countries will feel threatened by poor countries coming up, for the same reasons and one more: will that inspire our downtrodden to do the same? Could blacks in the US Gulf states be interested in a (con)federation with Caribbean countries populated the same way, by slavers from Liverpool?

Somebody is working 24/7 for Venezuela not to succeed, for sure. But it may be too late. The egg has been stood on its head with a little crack, and Chávez did it. The thought has been not only thought but enacted, and, given the enthusiasm and the dedication of the born-again in red T-shirts, Venezuela will probably make it.

There are questions beyond Venezuela’s future on the horizon.

It will be difficult for economists to stick to their trickling down illusions given Chávez’ bold option. But positive discrimination is sometimes an indispensable shock therapy to lift those in misery–women all over, non-whites, Malays in Malaysia, dalits in India–even if it “destroys market mechanisms”–for the short time it took to have an effect in Venezuela. Economists should help lifting the bottom up, also in the not oil rich countries, not only show the problems.

It will also be difficult for Christian theologians to disregard this challenge. Jesus lived among the poor, not only preaching on the Mount, but feeding, nursing, comforting, with compassion, on earth. Chávez was not a theologian entering that intellectual landscape, mined for two millennia where every step is wrong, for some, for many. He acted.

This eternal debate inside the church is by no means new, as Hans Küng writes in his superb “Is it time, at last, for a Vatican Spring” (IHT, 01 Mar 2013). If not, says Küng, “the church will–fall into a new ice age–shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect”. Küng himself could turn it around, as pope, for the whole world.

It will also be difficult for left wing extremists to see Fidel’s line as the only possible. Western democratic legitimacy, diverse-symbiotic economy and strong ethical motivation may carry us further. But the West has a tendency to confuse violence with conflict, ceasefire and disarmament of “rebels” with solutions, multi-party national election democracy with mediation; and the rule of law leaves out acts of omission as human rights leave out people’s rights.

It will also be difficult for politicians to hide their lack of initiative behind anti-populism. Democracy is already people-ist, and Chávez has shown that what people want, dignity, is not populist in the sense of promising the undeliverable but even short term feasible.

A genius makes us think and act – differently – and thereby making history. Chávez was one. Thank you Hugo – may you not rest in peace.

Originally published by Transcend Media Service here.

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