It’s started already and he’s hardly in his coffin. “Populist”, “controversial”, “eccentric” – those are just some of the names the media have used of him so far. You’d think that a man who had turned the political tide in South America, let alone in his own country, would get a better epitaph than that.
Hugo Chavez became President of Venezuela in 1999 and soon made it clear that things were going to change in his oil-rich country. He started with the price that was paid for Venezuelan oil, so that between 1998 and 2008, it increased by 660%. The money thus derived was used to eliminate three-quarters of the extreme poverty in his country and to provide free health and education for everyone.
But of course his big sin in Western eyes was that he stood up to the US. Fifty-four countries around the world allow the US to detain and torture people they, the Yanks, dislike. Chavez refused to be one of them. The US followed its usual procedure and supported a coup to overthrow him, despite the fact that the Venezuelan people had chosen him at the ballot box.
But Chavez’s influence went beyond the borders of his own country. In 2005, it was reckoned by the BBC that three out of every four people in South America now had elected a left-leaning president. This “pink tide” had one common denominator: a determination to break what used to be called the “Washington consensus” which pushed for open markets and privatisation, and was led of course by the US.
Like all politicians, Chavez had his faults. He alienated the middle classes in his own country as well as the powers-that-be in the US.But whatever his sins, the example he set to the rest of South America that they didn’t have to be a lucrative back-yard for the US and that they could play their own tune rather than dance to the one provided by the US, the real difference in health and education he made for his own people – all these far outweigh what wrong he may have done. He was a heroic figure and his death at 59 is a loss not just to Venezuela but the world. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.