El Comandante

Francesca Dobson

I was born in Venezuela but moved away when I was three, so understandably I have always had a particular interest in Chavez. My mother, who lived there for 10yrs and now lives in Florida, hated him as much as the Cubans there hate Castro.

My Father, who has lived in both Cuba and Venezuela, thought Chavez had good intensions, a worthy cause and that his heart was in the right place. He was very sad to see him go.

I have never shared the marmite view my parents or for that matter most people, seemed to have on El Comandante.

When he came to power, anyone that leaned to the left cheered. He stood for those that had less. He wanted to change a very corrupt political system. He established significant policies such as trading oil for doctors with Cuba to provide healthcare for the poor. He made housing and welfare policies that helped to mitigate Venezuela’s high social inequality problem (and this is his key legacy with the country now boasting the fairest income distribution in the whole of Latin America, as measured by the Gini coefficient index). Chavez stood up to the global hegemony of the US (of course using Venezuela’s large oil reserves).

All fine and well. Only he first tried to take power through a military coup. Then after winning democratic elections, began to change rules in tandem. He diminished the freedom of the press, changed legislation to extend his time in power and who could forget his nationalisation of US company Helmerich and Payne’s oil rigs amongst other shocking acquisitions of foreign property? Advocates right of the centre, and by this point many centrists too, saw him as the new face of the extreme socialist turn which much of South America seemed to be taking (with Ecuador’s Evo Morales as his brother in arms and Castro as mentor). He was for many a clear enemy of the free, democratic, western led world. Freedom of press restricted, reduced democratic choice, increased dictatorial tendencies, less private ownership.

This made it all very difficult for me to judge.

Yes, he was definitely a socialist who helped the poor and if you don’t think he did just that, all you have to do is turn the TV on – people are crying on the streets and it is not because they are in a North Korean dystopia. Yet he also undeniably curtailed freedoms which I, luckily living in a society that thankfully highly values freedom of speech, could not comprehend or accept living without.

I also believe that unfortunately, absolute power can, indeed, corrupt absolutely. In this case not from a financial perspective, but there was definitely a corruption of freedoms. A holistic review of El Comandante must acknowledge this; it plays a part in clinging to power and curtailing negative media. But then again, if you did think you were doing something good and right for your people, would you not try to put a stop to anything that you suspected might be led by your enemies, such as the US, including and especially the media? Would you not try to stay in power so that you could continue to help the poor? (Note he always had high public support). And don’t forget, you are seen as the new Castro, and the US did try to blow Castro up with exploding cigars – so it’s not unreasonable to become a little paranoid. But this does not exempt giving your people a right to express their views. Fear should not trump freedoms.

My conclusion is that history will be the final judge. But I will say this: Chavez was a man who changed the political landscape of South America and maybe far beyond. History will not forget him. I just wish Venezuela good luck, in making the right decisions so that it succeeds, as a country with its rich resources -and great people- deserves.

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