Caracas

Hugo Chavez was a democrat, not a dictator, and showed a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism is both possible and popular

If you want to learn about human rights in Venezuela before Hugo Chavez, type “Caracazo” into Google, and do so with a strong stomach. Back in 1989, then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez won an election on a fiery platform of resisting free-market dogma: the IMF was “a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing,” he proclaimed.

But after safely making it to the presidential palace, he dramatically u-turned, unleashing a programme of privatisation and neo-liberal shock therapy. With gas subsidies removed, petrol prices soared, and impoverished Venezuelans took to the streets. Soldiers mowed protesters down with gunfire. Up to 3,000 perished, a horrifying death toll up there with the Tienanmen Square Massacre – in a country with a population 43 times smaller.

It was his abortive coup attempt against Pérez’s murderous, rampantly corrupt government in 1992 that launched Chavez to prominence. Though locked away, Chavez became an icon for Venezuela’s long-suffering poor. By the time he won a landslide victory in 1998 on a promise to use the country’s vast oil wealth to help the poor, Venezuela was a mess. Per capita income had collapsed to where it had been in the early 1960s. One in three Venezuelans lived on less than $2 a day. Oil revenues were squandered.

Over the coming days, you will be repeatedly told that Hugo Chavez was a dictator. A funny sort of dictator: there have been 17 elections and referenda since 1998. Perhaps you think they were rigged. When he won by a huge margin in 2006, former US President Jimmy Carter was among those declaring he had won “fairly and squarely”. (more…)