Hugo Chavez was a buffoon and a demagogue. But was that all?
Upon his death last week, the Venezuelan president was remembered in the United States for many things: his rambling speeches, his abusive anti-American rhetoric (George W. Bush is a “devil” and a “donkey”), his human-rights violations (independent judges get locked up), his nationalization of industry and oil, his inflationary economic policies, his inability to deal with out-of-control crime, and his mad embrace of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Venezuela had replaced the Soviet Union as the main supporter of Communist Cuba, and Chavez seemed to regard himself as another Castro brother. With his passing, Washington could hope for a thaw in its relations with a nation that, through all the turmoil, remains its fourth-largest source of imported oil.
But in death, as in life, Hugo Chavez challenges a basic assumption that the United States has long made about Latin America. For more than a century, that vast region has represented a venue for the free market — a place from which to draw resources and to which to sell products. Across eras of dictators, revolutions, juntas, death squads, trade treaties, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and, lately, democratic socialism, Washington has been unflagging in an aggressive protection of its own economic interests. And even as political structures have evolved, as North-South relations have periodically shifted, and as blatant imperialism gave way to subtler neoliberalism, the underlying character of Yankee dominance has never changed.
For the United States, it was all too easy to dismiss Hugo Chavez as a throwback; his anti-US denunciations echoed other self-styled populists such as Fidel Castro or Daniel Ortega, the long-time Sandinista leader and current president of Nicaragua. And Washington could smugly note how Latin revolutionaries have been consistently corrupted by power, betraying those who gave it to them.
Yet underneath the hateful rhetoric and broken politics of the region lies a basic condition to which the United States has always been blind, but which people of the South can never forget. That condition is mass poverty.
“I bring food to the hungry,” the Brazilian cleric Dom Helder Camara famously said, “and they call me a saint. I ask why there are so many hungry, and they call me a communist.” Known as the “archbishop of the poor,” Camara was a prophet of liberation theology, the left-leaning Catholic movement from which Hugo Chavez took inspiration. The Venezuelan leader began by asking Camara’s question. That is why millions of poor people recognize Chavez as theirs, and why there was so much open grief in the streets of Caracas last week.
Over time, Chavez moved from being an idealistic firebrand advocating for the poor, to being a force for the their empowerment, to becoming perceived as the latest reduction to the absurd of socialist self-importance. Across roughly the same period, liberation theology itself went from being the inspiration of millions to a broadly discredited disappointment. Denounced as Marxist, a source of class conflict, unfair to the affluent, too obsessed with material matters, and condescending to the pieties and values of poor people themselves, liberation theology was rejected by establishment Catholicism and marginalized. Chavez and his Christian ideology were alike in falling short and being denigrated.
The failure of ideals can seem inevitable when huge percentages of an entire continent’s population live in hopelessness and deprivation, which no politics or social program can ever seem to improve. Especially when both free-market economics and traditional, otherworldly theology are proudly indifferent to such grinding conditions, the willful North American blindness to the plight of the poor can seem justified.
But that is wrong. “The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny,” said Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology. “His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of a system in which we live and for which we are responsible . . . Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” Neither Chavez’s excesses nor, now, his death can disprove what he was right about: the need to grapple with the horrors of mass poverty.