Hugo Chavez proved that Venezuela and the rest of Latin America could chart an independent path in the world.
The Venezuelan leader, who died on March 5, often assumed the role of court jester on the international stage, raising uncomfortable truths by poking fun at the powerful — namely, the United States.
But, for Chavez, revolutionizing Venezuela’s political and economic system was a wholly serious matter.
Before winning office, Venezuela had become a laboratory of U.S.-backed free market orthodoxy ruled by a tiny political elite, which siphoned off the country’s enormous oil profits. Despite oil reserves surpassing Saudi Arabia’s, almost two-thirds of Venezuelans slid into poverty.
Chavez promised to turn things around — and he did.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1999, voters approved a new constitution that drastically expanded grassroots citizen participation in government.
After taking control of the oil industry, his government managed to cut the proportion of Venezuelans living in poverty by half, from 60 to 30 percent. Health care and a college education — once exclusive luxuries of the wealthy — became widely and freely available. And the country is now practically free of illiteracy.
Chavez branded his vision for Venezuela as “socialism for the 21st century.”
His policies drew virulent opposition from the conservative national elite, which staged a short-lived coup in April 2002. Washington tacitly endorsed the power grab, but massive street demonstrations and unanimous condemnation by Latin American leaders returned Chavez to office.
The political tide in Latin America had turned — in part, thanks to Chavez.
He was the first in a steady stream of left-leaning leaders elected to office in a region that Washington had once claimed as its backyard. Chavez was the most vocal advocate of this growing autonomy.
He considered himself the spiritual heir of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, who dreamed that a united Latin America would be capable of standing up to Washington and other world powers.
The first major show of unity and defiance came in 2005. At a trade summit in Argentina, Latin American leaders banded together against a U.S.-proposed free trade agreement that would have extended the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout the hemisphere.
Since then, Chavez helped launch a handful of multilateral institutions in the region. These organizations have given Latin American countries the ability to promote regional infrastructure projects, coordinate diplomatic stances and cooperate militarily without meddling from Washington.
The political breathing room enabled other countries to follow in Venezuela’s footsteps and take greater control over their own natural resources. The oil and gas reserves of countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, for instance, are now bankrolling Venezuelan-style anti-poverty programs.
Chavez, of course, was not perfect, but he will be remembered in Venezuela and beyond as a fierce defender of Latin America and an outspoken advocate for a more just world economy.
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