President Hugo Chavez
And The Rise Of Black Indian Power
By William Loren Katz
New York, New York
Chavez is getting stronger as an unintended consequence of war and globalization, said Harvard Professor of Latin American history Kenneth Maxwell. In the last five weeks candidates leaning more to President Chavez and Fidel Castro than President Bush were elected to head the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Nicaragua; and before that Chavez favorite Nestor Kirchner, twice jailed by the military dictatorship, was elected in Argentina. The political thinking of Chavez -- thanks to NAFTA, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan -- is gaining adherents. Earlier this year Juan Evo Morales Ayma was elected Bolivia's first indigenous President, so the role of people of color also is rising in the Americas.
Many who approve Chavez's policies and even applaud his confrontational approach to President Bush wince at his rash rhetoric and his description of Cuba's one-party system as a revolutionary democracy. In his September address to United Nations General Assembly, the day after Bush spoke, Chavez famously said the Devil came here yesterday and it smells of sulfur today. The U.S. media used his provocative metaphor to dismiss and bury his illuminating talk. The mildest criticism was that he had failed to show proper deference or common courtesy to his host country's titular head. Media sources did not acknowledge that Chavez won occasional applause, and some delegates even smiled or laughed at his anti-Bush jibes. Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who had earlier called Bush a dimwit, said Chavez's comment was an "insult to the devil." But after he was elected President of Ecuador, Bush called Correa to congratulate him.
The mainstream media has consistently failed to mention Chavez's public assertions that through its CIA agents, secret funds, and connections to rich Venezuelans, the Bush administration has sponsored plots to have him removed from office, and these include assassination attempts. Chavez has chosen to deal with these threats with brash metaphors.
For its part the Bush administration has long reacted to Chavez with sputtering fury. Yet today the President of Venezuela sits more comfortably than ever atop a fourth of the world oil supplies -- equal to that of Iraq. Venezuela supplies a fifth of US oil needs, and continues to be Chavez's leading customer.
The State Department has cast Chavez as a tyrant in the class of Saddam Hussein, or a Marxist, or a ferociously anti-American clone of Castro. Lately, the characterization has been downgraded to populist - intended as a sharp criticism. Actually, his Bolivarian revolution springs from multicultural grass roots that pre-date the foreign invasion of the Americas that began in 1492, centuries before Karl Marx, Castro, Hussein or populism.
Like four-fifths of Venezuelans today, Chavez was born of poor Black and Indian parents. Since the days of Columbus, descendants of the Spanish conquerors have claimed the privilege of governing Latin America. They have effectively barred Indigenous people from high office. Chavez stands as a direct challenge to white domination of South American governments.
Chavez is not only proud of his biracial legacy, but has been using oil revenues to help the poor of all colors improve their education and economic standing. He also has flatly rejected Bush administration efforts to isolate Cuba, counts Castro a friend, and has repeatedly accused the U.S. of meddling in his country, in Cuba and around the world. He has pointed to the history of interventions by the United State that began with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Latin Americans, particularly those of his economic and racial background, are increasingly walking to polling booths to register their view throughout Latin America.
Chavez rules a country where three percent of the population, mostly of white European descent, own 77% of the land. In recent decades millions of hungry peasants have drifted into Caracas and other cities, to live in barrios of cardboard shacks and open sewers. Chavez wants to reverse poverty, provide jobs, provide education and health care, and redistribute vacant lands. He has begun to transfer fields from giant unused or abandoned haciendas to peasant hands, and though landlords have responded with alarm, he has promised further distributions.
Chavez's 21st century socialism has repeatedly held out an olive branch to its capitalist foes, and keeps an open-market system. Though foreign oil companies continue to pull in large profits, he does insist corporations pay back taxes and higher royalties. Once they walked away with about 84% of Venezuela's oil profits, but he has demanded 30% of those profits. Banks and credit card companies report large increases in deposits and loans.
At this moment with oil prices booming - and accounting for 47% of government revenues and 80% of exports -- everyone in the country is doing well, including his wealthy adversaries. The stock market has risen 130% this year, and the economy is soaring over 10%, the highest growth rate in the Americas. Chavez has stated, "All this stuff about Chavez and his hordes coming to sweep away the rich, it's a lie. We have no plan to hurt you. All your rights are guaranteed, you who have large properties or luxury farms or cars."
But the most dramatic beneficiaries of 21st century socialism are the poor. Three million people have enrolled in one of the government's four free educational missions that offer (1) basic literacy, (2) primary school education, (3) high school equivalency and (4) university education. The number of households in poverty dropped from 42.8% in 1999 when Chavez came to office, to 33.9% in 2006. During the same period households that suffered extreme poverty dropped from 17.1% to 10.6%. The official unemployment figure had been more than cut in half, and the poorest 25% of people has seen their consumption rate more than double.
Chavez has brought education to almost a million children who never sat in a classroom. And with 10,000 Cuban doctors, sent by Fidel Castro, he has opened 11,000 medical clinics primarily in barrios. To Venezuelans President Chavez believes in pay back.
In 1998 and 2000 Chavez won the Presidency by majorities Republicans and Democrats here dream about. In 2002 he defeated a two-day coup attempt engineered by the local elite in alliance with the US, and in the recent recall vote, 90% of voters turned out to keep him in office. Chavez's strength rests with his poorest citizens. It is also evident that many of his constituents have mobilized behind a broader agenda than his, one stressing participatory democracy and elevating the status of women. At this point, President Chavez does not see this popular movement he unleashed as a threat, and may try to lead it.
Chavez also announced a series of foreign programs to provide inexpensive oil to impoverished American populations. He first focused on small Caribbean and Caricom countries, and the larger Antillas such as Cuba, Jamaica, and Dominican Republic. Then he expanded the plan to bring affordable (a 40% discount) heating oil to the U.S poor through his Citgo oil company in conjunction with Joseph Kennedy's Citizens Energy. In 2006 Citgo and Citizens Energy will have delivered 100 millions of gallons of oil to more than 400,000 households, doubling last year's effort. The south Bronx and 163 Native American groups, mostly in Alaska, will benefit. But Chavez's discount plan, and particularly his offer of humanitarian relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, drew sharp denunciations from the Bush administration charging his efforts were publicity stunts.
Over the centuries South Americans have endured a crop of caudillos, or military dictators. Many began sounding a radical note only to be overthrown by the CIA or other foreign forces. Some remained in power by shifting their policies after visiting the American ambassador's residence in Caracas.
This former paratrooper seems to spring from a time when Africans and Indians armed and united to fight the first European invasion. For inspiration Chavez can reach back to the misty dawn of the foreign landings when heroic Black and African men and women rose to battle invading armies and their Christian missionaries. In 1819 Simon Bolivar, also of African and Indian lineage and the Founding Father of South America's Revolution, became the first elected President of Venezuela. Vicente Guerrero, an illiterate Black Indian guerilla General during the Mexican Revolution, took his army into the Sierra Madre mountains where he trained them to wrest their country from Spain's colonialism - and also taught himself to read and write. Mexico's ruling white elite mocked his lack of education and called him a triple-blooded outsider. But in 1829 after Guerrero came down from his mountain refuge, he became President of Mexico, the first Black Indian head of state. Guerrero wrote Mexico's constitution, emancipated its slaves, ended racial discrimination and abolished the death penalty.
His foes in Venezuela also consider Chavez a racial outsider, but the faces of millions of his supporters refute the charge, and his message continues to triumph at the polls. He seems to relish his role as Latin America's chief antagonist to the Bush administration. Many believe he instills courage and provides cover for Latin American leaders who have the audacity to challenge the giant to the north.
Time will tell if Chavez's programs and supporters can protect him from the machinations of his wealthy Venezuelan foes and their powerful U.S. allies. Ordinary Venezuelans have initiated their own revolution, and though at this point it undergirds Chavez's political and economic strength, it may take new directions.
Hugo Chavez and his people, historically poor and oppressed, are attempting to write an exciting chapter in the heroic record crafted originally by millions of unknown African and Indian people in the Americas, and continued by Simon Bolivar and Vicente Guerrero.
About the author: William Loren Katz has published 40 history books -- including award winning classics Black Indians, The Black West and Black Women of the Old West. Katz has been a consultant to the Smithsonian Institute, a committee of the British House of Commons, and a committee of the US Senate. He has served as a Scholar-in-Residence at Teachers College, Columbia University and at New York University. His web site is http://www.williamlkatz.com
Published in In Motion Magazine December 21, 2006
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