Friday, March 8, 2013

Hugo Chavez: An Icon For The Wretched Of The Earth

Hugo Chavez: An Icon For The Wretched Of The Earth

                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Strange that I should remember the incident in the wake of Hugo Chavez’s death.

After the six nation summit in Ixtapa, Mexico, in August 1986, I found myself in the distinguished company of John Kenneth Galbraith. We were being driven to the airport after the summit. Prof. Galbraith, who was invited by Rajiv Gandhi as the principal intellectual resource at the Anti Nuclear Weapons Summit, was disappointed with his interactions with the Argentineans and Mexicans who were in attendance.

He thought they were out of touch with the broad historical trends in their region. Either there is prosperity going hand in hand with massive repression. Or there “will be” prosperity on one hand and popularity on the other. “They will clash too”.

Just then our car stopped at the traffic lights. Two bare bodied young men approached us, their mouths full of petrol which they ignited and breathed out frightening flares of blue flame. The driver rolled down the glass and gave them some money.

“That is not some quaint culture”, Galbraith said. “That is the consequence of massive maldistribution..…..of land.”

Mexicans eking out a risky existence at traffic intersections was what I saw 25 years ago. I see their exact replica at our street intersections today: scrawny, little boys and girls doing perfect cart wheels in crawling traffic. This is the progeny of traditional “Nats” or village-fair acrobats who have been put out of work by the invasion of TV in rural areas.

The miracle of Hugo Chavez was that both those cruel images of the marginalized were pushed out from Venezuela’s traffic lights and intersections. The marginalized had found their messiah, even as the entrenched vested interests in their plush homes sought American help to retard this enormous status reversal. This is exactly what Galbraith had predicted. He was clearly extrapolating from the then ongoing Nicaraguan experience where Daniel Ortega was leading the Sandinistas against the Contras fighting a rearguard action for entrenched interests. The Contras were being helped by the United States.

In a sense Chavez had an easier time because he was not trapped, as Ortega was, in Cold War considerations. Moreover, Chavez had vast hydrocarbon wealth to support his system of distributive justice, a socialist state tied to electoral democracy.

A great deal of his unparalleled charisma derived from his sincerity in the service of the wretched of the earth. The heart rending photographs of people breaking down, crying inconsolably have not been seen in recent times. I remember family elders describe scenes of national sorrow on a comparable scale when Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead.

In style and substance he derived a great deal from his undisputed Guru – Fidel Castro. Ofcourse, he adopted the classical formula: he must be seen to be pitted against larger than life forces he was fighting in the cause of his people. He played the David against the American Goliath much to the applause of people across Latin America and beyond.

Unlike the Middle Eastern leaders brought down by the West, Chavez could never be demonized easily because of his unbroken chair of electoral victories.

It would be absurd to extract lessons for India from the Venezuelan situation. But there is something to be noted about the Cuban-Venezuelan infection taking a tenacious hold on large parts of Latin America. Anti incumbency can be bucked by pro people policies.

Take Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil for instance. His distance from neo liberal, pro poor policies have enabled him to win two terms himself and another for his nominee. Even though the “zero hunger” scheme in the first term ran into administrative difficulties, schemes of cash transfers by the federal government to mothers from the poorest segment, provided they had proof that their children go to school and regularly have their health checked, have benefited 12 million households.

Evo Morales of Bolivia, is in his second term already. He was first elected President in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the popular vote. In a referendum two and half years later he won a two-thirds majority. In 2009, Morales won by 63 percent. Chavez was to him what Castro was to Chavez.

Likewise, Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President and Federico Franco, of Paraguay, are all part of a rapidly left leaning Latin American consensus.

Initially it all seemed high decibel anti Americanism but, on close examination, the trend offers critiques of capitalism many American thinkers like Joseph Stiglitz also offer.

Times are a changing, quite certainly. Chavez is a globally lamented hero and in another part of the world, the much demonized figure of Stalin is slowly being brought into focus in a positive hue. Stalingrad is gradually being resurrected as Stalingrad. Reverting to Galbraith, the Acquisitive Society, may well be in the process of losing some of its competitive edge.

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