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The real Hugo Chávez

A decade after Hugo Chávez was first elected Venezuelan president Hugh 0'Shaughnessy pays tribute to

A decade ago Hugo Chávez won a landslide victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections taking 3,673,685 votes of the five and a quarter million cast.

In last month’s elections which were equally as clean and legitimate as the ones in 1998 – if not more so – PSUV, the newly created and still rather uncomfortable party founded by Chávez and his supporters, won well over 5,000,000 votes in nationwide polls. (The voting age was reduced and consequently produced a larger electorate.)

Seventeen of the 22 state governorships and 81 per cent of the vote for mayors in November 2008 went to Chávez’ people. With its five governorships and a handful of mayoralties the principal opposition party harvested 20 per cent of the ballot. In political terms the foreign-subsidised opposition got virtually nowhere.

Now to any fair-mined mainstream journalist from Britain or the US, to any impartial professional observer, to any balanced writer of the first draft of history such an outcome is clearly little short of cataclysmic for the Venezuelan leader.

It’s patently a disaster for the little Latin with his pretensions to “21st Century Socialism” and his Soviet – sorry - Russian friends. The palm of victory must in fairness be awarded to the gallant opposition, led by the fearless few who with the kind help of Uncle Sam staged the 2002 coup which toppled the red-shirted Chávez for 48 hours. All praise and credit to those who six years ago and installed a true believer in North Atlantic democracy a forward-looking businessman called Carmona, unafraid to dismiss Congress and sack the judges before he himself was chased away.

And, don’t you forget it, the man in the red beret and his rickety economy are heading for the financial rocks with the oil price which in mid-year touched US$150 a barrel, and is now down to around $60: let no one recall that at the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq that price stood at $30.

Chávez, we are told, may have the votes but he doesn’t think like the seasoned statesman such as exist in Whitehall and the District of Colombia. Submerged in his Latin American world, Chávez, the seasoned ones inform us, has none of the international perspective of our leaders.

There is no one in Caracas up to fearlessly invading Iraq, destroying Fallujah and its innocent inhabitants, razing part of ancient Babylon, backing the gallant Israelis against terrorism from Lebanon and locking up the Bad Guys without trial and torturing them as they so richly deserve.

Unlike the blunderers in Caracas, our fully briefed experts, female and male, civilian and military, are, as we speak, sending fresh (well, nearly fresh) troops to the Middle East so they can finish the job and leave with their heads held high. As anyone who reads the newspapers knows, these troops will finally establish peace, justice and honesty in the next few months. And the clever thing is that they will be able to achieve all this before they scuttle away to business-friendly and freedom-loving Saudi Arabia before anyone can shout “Defeat” as their Humvees disappear over the sand dunes.

The received wisdom in the mainstream Western media about Chávez and Venezuela, as I must warn unwary readers of the last six paragraphs who might have thought the sentiments I referred to were genuinely mine, is quintessential nonsense. The real truth about Chávez is that after a decade in power he continues to be more popular than anyone else in Venezuelan politics – and certainly straighter and more honourable than the politicians of neighbouring Colombia, racked as it is by bloodshed and peculation.

Chávez certainly had some reverses on 23 November. He himself tends to talk too much and sometimes put his foot in it. Certainly it would be good for the Venezuelan treasury is the oil price went back up to $150. The PSUV is newly born and contains its fair share of villains and incompetents. Venezuelan policing is certainly far less than adequate. But it has never sunk to the levels of barbarity to which the Brazilian and Argentine police sunk when those countries were ruled by generals during the Cold War. Under the approving eye of General Vernon Walters, the Stonyhurst-educated catholic and his CIA, the military thugs favoured the political watchword of the moment, the so-called “national security state”.

And let us not forget that Washington’s agencies have throughout the past decade shovelled cash to the Venezuelan opposition in eye-watering quantities in a way no US government would allow foreigners to shovel into its own territory. The US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and many more quaintly named bodies have been busily – and none too competently – tried to subvert the man who a big majority of Venezuelans want to lead them out of the morass that previous politicians landed them in.

As Chávez celebrates his decade in elective office it may be helpful to remind the Westerners, politicians and journalists alike, who seek to do him down that their talents would be better employed in the task of closing the Guantánamo Bay torture camp and rescuing Western troops from impending defeat in their Iraqi and Afghan quagmires.

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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