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Hugo Chávez: Ethical Oil’s Accidental Salesman, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series. For part 1, click here.

Hugo Chávez first stormed the spotlight in Venezuela as the leader of an unsuccessful coup attempt against the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Realizing that the coup had failed, Chávez admitted defeat on national television, famously vowing to try again before being shipped off to prison.

According to the ethical oil version of history, the story essentially stops here: an aspiring dictator attempts to seize power and fuel his despotic rule with ill-gotten oil money. Though Chávez would only take office in 1999 in democratic elections, he wore the authoritarian label until the end of his days. As usual, however, reality is more complex than the Canadian oil lobby would have you believe.

Venezuela before Chávez was a country marred by corruption, poverty and institutional decay, administered by a two-party oligarchy that took turns in power. Long kept afloat by oil revenues, the economy went into crisis in the 1980s as petroleum prices fell. President Pérez responded in 1989 by reversing his election promises and enacting IMF-mandated market reforms, including a wave of mass privatizations and the removal of crucial food and fuel subsidies. During the resulting rioting among the urban poor, Pérez called in the army, killing over 3,000 civilians in what came to be known as the Caracazo massacre.

Chávez emerged as a leader out of the turmoil of Caracazo and the Venezuelan resistance movement against austerity. Privatization and market reforms have a long and ignoble history on the South American continent; they tend to be imposed through the barrel of a gun.

From Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup in Chile to the Argentinian military junta, violent state repression has often been used to accomplish what democracy could not: the elimination of social protections and the selling off of state assets to foreign investors.

After his election in 1999, Chávez sought to chart a different course for Venezuela, and he began by calling a constituent assembly to create a new constitution. The constitutional process, which incorporated indigenous groups, women’s rights advocates and urban social movements, produced an ambitious document that was approved by nearly 80 percent of the population in a referendum.

The drafting of the new constitution began a contradictory process that would define Chávez’s presidency. One the one hand, new mechanisms for direct democracy alongside commitments to health care, education and welfare empowered millions of deeply impoverished Venezuelans formerly shut out of politics. On the other hand, the staunch opposition of the oligarchy, supported by anti-Chávez media both at home and abroad, meant that Chávez often resorted to moves like stacking the judiciary in order to maintain his power in office.

Many of the programs implemented under Chávez were innovative attempts at addressing long-entrenched social problems. He created a vast series of reforms called Bolivarian Missions that opened free medical clinics, massively expanded social housing, improved literacy rates and worked to reform land rights and establish food sovereignty.

While these social programs are routinely dismissed as mere patronage handed out by an oil-soaked populist, they functioned as genuine forums for direct democracy, empowering citizens to make decisions about the best uses of government funds through local debate. These programs were not all successful, nor were they able to transform Venezuelan society overnight. But for those they reached, the Bolivarian Missions made a big difference in their lives.   

Like all petro-states, Venezuela is a nation whose politics are defined by its most valuable commodity.

Yet while the petro-states of the Middle East have used their oil wealth to enrich a tiny elite and build vast monuments to unsustainable affluence (e.g., Dubai’s indoor ski resort), Venezuela under Chávez used its control of the nationalized oil industry to make meaningful improvements in the lives of its poorest citizens.

Since Chávez was first elected president in 1999, poverty has fallen from 42.8 percent of households to 26.7 percent, and extreme poverty has declined from 16.6 percent to 7.0 percent. The Gini coefficient, a measurement of wealth inequality, has fallen from 0.469 to 0.39, a drop that makes Venezuela’s income distribution the most equal in Latin America.

The routine demonization of Chávez by his ideological opponents, including the ethical oil camp, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Dismissed as an elected dictator, Chávez repeatedly won re-election in polls that Former US President Jimmy Carter has rated as the freest and fairest in the world. Accused of taking over the media and silencing his critics, Chávez’s state-run broadcaster actually commands a mere 5-8 percent of market share.

The corporate media, by contrast, is staunchly opposed to his redistributive policies, and played a key role in fomenting a coup attempt against him in 2002. That coup was only stopped when hundreds of thousands of Chávez supporters took to the streets demanding the president’s return to office.

Venezuela under Chávez was no socialist paradise, and the road ahead for the country will be difficult. It faces high rates of violent crime, rising inflation and diminished revenues from oil production—not to mention deep ideological divisions over the future of the country.

But neither was Chávez’s Venezuela the embodiment of evil that Ezra Levant would have us believe.

No matter how you evaluate Chávez’s legacy, he can no longer function as the cartoon villain that legitimizes the tar sands.

Canada is facing a series of stark choices about its energy future. The choice is not between green, friendly Canadian bitumen and the tar of tyrants. Oil markets make those decisions without a single thought for ethics. If we’re going to face up to the reality of climate change, it’s time to stop pointing fingers abroad.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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