‘…Or Dictator?’ How media narratives mask the debate about Chavez’s Venezuela

When I arrived in Caracas in December, Chavez was in Cuba being treated for the cancer that would eventually take his life, sparking international debate around his character and legacy.For the Chavistas I know, the reactionary and sensationalist editorial policies of the Guardian and other supposedly left-wing broadsheets were nothing new. What was most concerning was the symbolic function of the ubiquitous “…or Dictator” narrative. The constant questioning of Chavez’s political legitimacy detracts very effectively from the detail of an important case study. A visionary leader, Chavez’s legacy is more than poverty reduction, growth and social empowerment: it is that of getting the arguments right. By association with a lazy negative stereotype, these arguments are rendered as something normatively irrelevant to important global debates over social organisation.

On paper, this is a revolution of the most progressive kind. The more I read, the more I imagine Chavez walking the floors of the Miraflores Palace with a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in his back pocket. This was a man determined to avoid the mistakes of twentieth century socialism. Only reluctantly he constructed a party that could win elections against a US-backed opposition, consistently preferring a dialectic approach. From the collaborative drafting of the constitution to the fundamental place for communal councils in his vision for Venezuela, Chavez’s vision was of participative democracy founded on popular power.

London Candle Lit Vigil for Chavez Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

London Candle Lit Vigil for Chavez Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

Chavez’s revolution is not just about halving extreme poverty, reversing decades-long trends of inflation and economic decline, achieving consistent growth throughout a global recession, tripling pensions and healthcare access and eradicating illiteracy (see link below). But to participate meaningfully you must be fed, educated and healthy.

My experiences in Venezuela merge in and around this account, adding faces to the revolutionary story. This is no Catalonian utopia, not yet. Traffic is lethal and pollution is everywhere, from the gutter to the most breathtaking vistas. In Caracas, barrios seep to the horizon, beautiful and menacing, while in leafy suburbs the rich hide behind electrified fences. I am never robbed, rarely threatened, but I am warned constantly that I am not safe.

The upside is easily visible. An array of visible public goods include subsidised meals, groceries, telecommunications and public transport including free cable-cars and trams, new public parks and outdoor gyms and of course petrol as cheap as water. I stay in free student accommodation and receive excellent, free healthcare. I hear how the Communal Council system means residents have direct control of local decision making on spending, licensing, investment, infrastructural improvements and policing. I take to the streets with smiling activists, old and young, putting their bodies on the line as fears of opposition violence mount in Chavez’s absence. I have never seen a protest for the government before.

In Venezuela, opinions of Chavez almost always divide along class lines. I meet middle-class students who feel threatened by having to compete for jobs with graduates of the free Bolivarian universities. I sit with rich expats on my flights in and out of Caracas who have been ‘forced’ to relocate to Belgravia and Hyde Park apartments to wait out the revolution. Their views contrast with the accounts of poor families whose experience of change is simple: now they have hope and self-respect. They are included.

Chavez’s death, on the 5th of March, rocks the country and is reported all over the world. In Venezuela many are devastated, prostrate and weeping in the streets in their millions. Some, overjoyed, celebrate in their gated communities. In the British papers the eulogies are either derisory or undecided. Was Chavez hero or tyrant? Saviour or dictator? I hear these debates repeated by left-wing friends but little talk of the urgent questions concerning a country daring to follow a truly alternative path of development.

Crowds gather for the London Candle Lit Vigil for Chavez Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

Crowds gather for the London Candle Lit Vigil for Chavez Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

This was a popular leader elected with a clear majority and a twelve point margin (compared to 26% of the electorate who voted for David Cameron). As President, Chavez has also overseen more elections in the last fourteen years than in the previous forty with a voting system regarded as among the fairest in the world. There is undoubtedly some centralisation of power, designed to circumnavigate an aging and famously corrupt bureaucracy. He is a leader who repaid World Bank loans in full while in national debt in the global North sky-rocketed, who consistently tolerated the hysterically anti-Chavez private press, insisting on the principles of press freedom. Venezuela’s seven political prisoners are a marked contrast to a decade of illegal rendition by the US and UK.

Both in remembering Chavez and analysing Venezuela today, we would do better to ask: what is distinctive here? This is a revolution centred on social transformation: on devolving political decision-making, challenging clientelist dynamics and above all on rewriting the narratives at the heart of a society to challenge structures of disempowerment and material inequality. This discourse is especially relevant as people around the world suffer austerity and look for alternatives. Claims of radical, pro-poor, systemic change should be empirically interrogated in our media and our universities, not detracted from by tired tabloid slurs, even when they do have a question mark at the end.

Presidential elections are set for 14th April in Venezuela, where the media vilification of Vice-President Nicolas Maduro is already underway. He is widely tipped not only for victory but to continue policies that will deepen and strengthen the revolutionary process. Even in mourning, Chavez’s supporters are adamant that his vision of popular empowerment will continue. This emancipation is his most important contribution.

Words and photographs by Harry Greatorex
Postgraduate Researcher in International Development at UEA, h.greatorex@uea.ac.uk http://www.uea.ac.uk/international-development/People/PhD+Students/Harry+Greatorex

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