Wednesday, 6 March 2013


So, Hugo Chavez is dead.

And the flood gates have opened on social media. Either a saint or a devil, depending on which tweet I was reading at that moment. I feel the need to tread carefully, as I have friends who believe he was either.

Aha, say folk with long memories, didn't you write some Chavez apologism back in 2006. And 2007. And 2008. etc etc.

Aha, say folk with longer memories, you also said what a lovely chap that Castro was. I disagree. What I said was that he preferable to Batista whom he succeeded.  On a similar note, I find leprosy preferable to bubonic plague, ESA preferable to being homeless and Alex Ferguson preferable to Jose Mourinho.

We must tread carefully. I note as I write the savage murder of Sabino Romero, a leading activist against Chavez, earlier this week. People, and I mean social media types mostly,  who make big claims and nail themselves to one side of the political argument often wind up looking fools in history. The situation in Venezuela is as delicate and incomprehensible to the outsider as ours is to the Americans, or indeed any country where you only look at the structure from outside. Without being in the country on a day to day, belief is often depending on bias, and even when one lives in the country, it depends on how one lives. A Tory banker is as far removed from the poor of Tower Hamlets, as I am removed from the Yukpa in Venezuela.

I have been looking back over my words from my younger days. There is a lot of rage against the system in them, and a fair dose of naivety. Yet, I refrain from old shame, any writing must, I think, be allowed to stand as a document of the time. In 2008 I was less refined in my thinking (and in 2018, I will look back at my 2013 posts and say the same, no doubt) and so the testament stands to it. My reference to his "protecting the rights of indigenous Venezuelans" does look a bit suspect, I admit.

So hopefully being a little wiser, what can we say about Chavez?

Well, he is a hard man to put into a box. He was a man both praised and then criticised by the Human Rights Watch after all. His government did tackle illiteracy, bring in health care and slash child mortality rates. However, they also victimised indigenous peoples (where rhetoric about bringing in protection became meaningless as fighters continued between people and ranchers, peoples and government over a government who wanted to mine resources in the territory), oversaw persecution of political opponents and his buddying up to hideous people - hi Gadaffi - was horrible to see. The man was no Saint of the left, that is for sure.

The situation in Latin America is highly complex and strained, and I am well aware of the West's role in aiding that. "Democracy in Guatemala is unrealistic at this time" and all that jazz. In the years of Chavez's reign, I've seen leftist writers deify him for his actions with the poor, and yes, many of those were commendable. I've seen FOX News call him a dictator, and I stand by my reckoning that by that definition, David Cameron is one too. I've seen actual Venezuelans praise and criticise Chavez. I've seen folk who lived through Pinochet denounce the West's interest in Venezuela and defend its government, and folk who lived through Galtieri denounce Chavez himself. Well, who was right?

Well, I think they all are.

A man can be responsible for great good and great evil. Sometimes in the same day. Somewhere in the long track of road between Dictator and Saint, we find Hugo Chavez. A flawed leader. The dangers of binary thinking prevent me from saying "He was this" or "He was that", but to state merely he had elements of both bad and good in his history.

My hope is that his successors take on the mantle of the Bolivarian missions, yet remembers the promises to the Yukpa and their kin. Who can remember that in a democracy, we needn't fear an opposition voice, we can disprove it.

What I am worried about is that the situation lends itself to chaos. The new government will claim Chavez a murdered martyr, and go into high paranoia alert. The army will be used, the opposition will claim the government lacks authority, vested interests will call in, etc etc. In the midst of it all, the ordinary Venezuelan people will suffer.

My hope is that they don't. Because really, they are the ones who matter in this, not which Western writer looks better on Twitter.

My worry is that folk who know history are doomed to see fools repeat itself. And how easily we could see the Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak slide...

For years, critics have denounced the Venezuelan dictatorship. I genuinely hope they don't have an actual one to denounce in the future.