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.