This piece was originally published as part of a cover package in the New Statesman magazine, alongside an article by Rory Carroll entitled "An elected autocrat".
An atmosphere of sadness and imminent tragedy has taken over the towns and cities of Venezuela as Hugo Chávez nears death. For so long portrayed in the west as a buffoon or a socialist firebrand, this immensely important political figure has suddenly begun to be treated with dignity and respect.
What is not yet understood is that Chávez, who is suffering from cancer, has been the most significant ruler in Latin America since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, more than half a century ago. Such extraordinary and charismatic people emerge rarely in history; they leave an imprint that lasts for decades.
I have long been a supporter of Chávez, writing and talking about him since he first emerged as a serious and revolutionary political contender in the middle of the 1990s. He embodied two vibrant traditions from Latin America in the 1960s: the memory of the left-wing guerrilla movements of that period, inspired by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (and, of course, by Castro) and the unusual experience of government by left-wing army officers, notably General Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru and General Omar Torríjos in Panama. He also embraced the powerful current of left-wing nationalism in Latin America’s leftist parties, often repressed during the years of the cold war, but never far from the surface.
Chávez was born in the village of Sabaneta in July 1954, in the wide cattle lands of Barinas State (he is a year younger than Tony Blair). His parents were schoolteachers and members of Copei, the Christian democratic party.
Ambitious to be a baseball player, he joined the army at the age of 17 rather than following his elder brother to study at the University of the Andes in Mérida.
A frustrated intellectual, Chávez became an inspiring history teacher at the Caracas military academy, influencing a generation of young officers with his tales of Venezuelan dissidents from the 19th century, starting with Simón Bolívar. In Venezuela, a country dominated by white European immigrants and overlaid with a thick cultural veneer of American consumerism, he sought to recreate pride in an alternative historical vision of a land peopled by the often-ignored descendants of Native Americans and black slaves.
In 1982, dismayed by the growing decadence and corruption of the civilian politicians, Chávez formed a “Bolivarian revolutionary movement” within the armed forces that started as a political study group and ended up a subversive organisation hoping for an appropriate moment to stage a coup d’état. This came after 1989, when civil unrest erupted in several cities; the armed forces were called out to suppress it with great violence, killing more than a thousand people.
Chávez and his small band of middleranking officers then staged a coup in February 1992. It was successful in much of the country but failed in Caracas, where Chávez was in charge of the insurrection. Faced with defeat, he surrendered and appeared briefly on national television to announce that he was giving up, “for now”.
His implicit promise that he would return another day brought him immediate popularity countrywide, especially in the shanty towns and rural areas.
Chávez represented the hope of profound change in a stagnant and unequal society, and six years later, in 1998, leading an ad hoc party, the “Fifth Republic Movement”, he was elected president of Venezuela with 56 per cent of the vote. His victory was the result of the electoral implosion of the ruling parties of the previous 40 years, Copei and Democratic Action (affiliated to the Socialist International). The remnants of these two discredited parties have struggled unsuccessfully ever since to create an opposition worthy of the name.
At the end of 1999, after Chávez had been in power for a year, I went to Caracas to in - terview him and to write a book about him. It was already obvious then that he was the most interesting figure to have emerged in Latin America since the fall of Salvador Allende’s government in September 1973, nearly 30 years earlier. We met on a Monday morning on the verandah of his home at La Casona, an official residence in eastern Caracas surrounded by a gorgeous tropical garden. I had often seen him loom large on television, but in person he seemed a size smaller. He had an infectious grin and a capacity to talk non-stop and it was difficult to get a word in.
We sat there alone throughout the morning, with occasional calls for coffee and orange juice, as he ranged over the entire history of Latin America. He emphasised the need to halt and reverse the persistent population drain from country to town in Venezuela.
He was impressed that my researches had taken me all over the country, not just to visit his birthplace in Sabaneta but to the remote settlement of Elorza, on a tributary of the Orinoco close to the Colombian border, to which he had been exiled in the 1980s when the government first got wind of his activities. Elorza was a tiring, 12-hour bus journey south of Barinas.
He invited me to fly with him that week to look at various rural projects, and half the cabinet came with us. Chávez asked questions all the time, prodding his ministers to take a direct interest in what needed to be done. His capacity to enthuse and educate was remarkable and left me and the ministers exhausted by the end of the day.
I have been back to Caracas most years since then and have talked to Chávez many times. He has always been the same, welcoming, keen to talk, and always recognising me, even in a crowd. Who was this strange Englishman who had taken the trouble to write a book about him? When among civilians, he would single out old women and small children for attention; at a military parade he would talk to the lowest ranks before taking on the top brass. It is this reversal of normal public practice that has made him so special and so loved.
Chávez had great ambitions to improve conditions for Venezuela’s poor and to include them in the national debate, but in the first few years he had no very clear idea how to do it. His single most significant political initiative, announced on day one, was to call for a progressive constitution, ratified by referendum (a pattern copied by Bolivia and Ecuador). The aim was to change the rules of the political game and lay the groundwork for a more participative society. With the wind of a popular election result in his sails, the enfeebled opposition could do nothing to stop him.
Chávez understood at an early stage that Venezuela needed to revive Opec, the organisation of oil-producing countries, where unity of outlook was needed in order to secure a regular and respectable rent. He visited several Opec states that were unpopular in western eyes, including Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but it was worth the effort and the opprobrium. With Venezuela leading the first efforts in 1998, the price of oil has risen since then from $10 a barrel to over $100 in 2012. This was a significant change, but Chávez also needed to be persuaded by his own petroleum experts to recover government control of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the nationalised oil company and the country’s chief source of revenue. Under the ancien régime, the company had been organised to benefit itself, not to distribute its royalties for the benefit of the people.
Finally, after a lockout by PDVSA in 2002 (preceded by an equally subversive attempt at a military coup), the Chávez government took full control of the oil company, sacked the old management and forced the foreign companies working under contract to increase the royalties they paid.
Huge sums of money were now diverted into organising wide-ranging social programmes at home and buying influence abroad in the Caribbean, notably in Cuba, as well as in other parts of South America. This has been Chávez’s lasting legacy, and is the basis of his project to promote “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela and more widely on the continent.
Chávez’s rhetoric has been more powerful than his record of achievement. He has recovered the meaning and potential popularity of the word “socialism”, after its worldwide collapse following the self-destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991, and has brought a number of important public utilities under state control. Yet even now France has a larger public sector than Venezuela.
Journalistic NGOs and human rights groups complain about what they see as attacks on freedom of the press in Venezuela, usually mentioning in passing the forced closure of a whites-only television channel that would have been shut down much earlier in other parts of the world. Of the huge widening of the media franchise in Venezuela, in the innumerable new community radio stations and alternative TV channels, there is little comment in foreign reports.
Nor do we hear much from western journalists about the changing nature of life in the shanty towns, with the spread of health programmes and education opportunities, or the recent construction of housing projects, or the experiments with co-operatives and community councils.
Why has Chávez had such a bad press? Several individual journalists are guilty of idleness, ignorance and bad faith. Living cheek by jowl with the opposition population in the upper-class zones of Caracas, they find it difficult not to share the views and prejudices of their neighbours. Yet the poor performance of individuals does not explain why the badmouthing of Chávez has been so prevalent throughout the western world, on the Europe continent and in the United States as well as in Britain. Le Monde and El País, Libération and El Mundo have been just as critical as the reporters of the Guardianand the New York Times.
Part of the image problem lies with longsurviving caricatures of Latin America in the popular memory that have little relevance to the continent today. There is a history of military dictators, with or without the dark glasses, which dates back to the first half of the 20th century and reached its peak in the era of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina.
The military tradition led to imprisonment and torture, and the dropping of prisoners out of aeroplanes into the sea. In such a context, how is it that Colonel Chávez, a paratrooper in a red beret, has turned out to be such a progressive man?
Elections in Latin America are more often than not flawed. “You won the election, but I won the count” was the usual response of the Somoza family in Nicaragua to an unfavourable result. Yet outside observers have consistently declared Venezuela’s elections to be fair, and Chávez is no Pinochet. The Venezuelan armed forces have been restructured to serve the people.
Another problem is that Chávez’s reinvention of socialism, as well as his close affection for Fidel Castro, seem old-fashioned to some. Academics who had hoped for a smooth transition to western democratic patterns in Latin America after the downfall of the dictators have also been disappointed by the Venezuelan experience, so different from what they had hoped for or been led to expect. Chávez has fallen foul of most of the left-of-centre politicians and intellectuals in Europe, who have remained in thrall to the social-democratic ideology common in the 1990s. They have ignored his appeal for something different to be summoned up in Latin America.
In a world where such people are subservient to the demands of the American empire, it is easy for the rare figure who speaks out against it to be viewed as an idiot or a despot. Chávez has had good reason to oppose the United States: it has tried to overthrow him. Yet it is not just his rejection of Washington’s foreign wars that alarms: these have had many opponents in Europe, too. It is his outright hostility to US economic policy, filtered through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose formulae are slavishly adhered to in western Europe, that is considered outlandish.
Chávez’s search for a different economic policy, with a powerful role for the state, is thought to be foolish, utopian and destined to fail. Yet with many countries in Europe in a state of economic collapse – largely the result of their long embrace of neoliberal policies – his project for Latin America may soon have wider appeal.
Venezuela and Latin America, and the wider world beyond, now face a future in which Chávez will no longer be physically present. However, he has not only helped to construct and project Venezuela as an interesting and important country for the first time, at ease with itself and its historical heritage, he has reimagined the continent of Latin America with a vision of what might be possible. Long after successive presidents of the United States have disappeared into the obscurity of their presidential archives, the memory of Hugo Chávez will survive in Latin America, along with that of Simón Bolívar and Che Guevara, as an influential leader who promised much but was cut down in his prime.
Richard Gott is the author of “Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution” (Verso, £10.99)