Joyce McMillan: Chavez’s era of political choice

Chavez helped pave the way for successful centre-left economies emerging in South America. Picture: AP
Chavez helped pave the way for successful centre-left economies emerging in South America. Picture: AP
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IT TOOK the BBC about an hour, following the death of Hugo Chavez on Tuesday evening, to decide on the word it would use, in every subsequent news bulletin, to describe the late Venezuelan leader.

That word was “divisive”; sometimes combined with an “outspoken” or a “charismatic”, but endlessly repeated, over the next few days. There is, of course, scant evidence that Chavez was any more “divisive”, back at home, than any other elected leader around the world. In his final presidential election, last October, he won more than 55 per cent of the vote, a statistic that makes him less divisive than – say – United States president Barack Obama, whose re-election in November all but split the United States down the middle.

Chavez is classed as a “divisive” figure, though, for just one reason; because he dared to dissent from the global orthodoxy known as the “Washington consensus”, the overwhelming agreement among the wealthy and powerful of the planet that neo-liberal economic policy works best, and that any problems arising from it, in the way of human misery and inequality, are a small price to pay for its exceptional efficiency in continually boosting their wealth. The idea of Chavez as some kind of socialist saint is, of course, an illusion. His governments presided over high rates of crime, gangsterism and corruption, he had little patience with dissent, and his schemes to lavish the nation’s oil wealth on the poor were notoriously higher on symbolic value than on efficiency.

Yet at the moment in 1998 when Chavez emerged as president – with neo-liberal capitalism triumphant across Eastern Europe, and George W Bush about to win his first US election – his loud, vigorous and unashamed support for the poor against the rich, and for the people of Venezuela against the might of American corporations, was of colossal symbolic significance.

Following Chavez’s death, some right-wing commentators have sought to argue that he had little in common with the more pragmatic social-democratic governments that have emerged over the past two decades in countries such as Ecuador and Brazil. Yet this week, those governments have united to pay tribute to Chavez as “a great South American”, whose robust stand against capitalism at its most arrogant and extreme helped open the way for the hugely successful centre-left economic strategy – combining strong growth with serious redistribution – that has now propelled Brazil, in particular, into the top ten of global economies.

And it’s precisely because of the role Chavez played in opening up a real range of political choice, for South American governments over the last 15 years, that we here in Britain should note with concern the strident efforts of our own elites to close down discussion of economic alternatives, and of the positive aspects of the Chavez legacy. The Prime Minister was at it again, in Yorkshire yesterday, in a speech anticipating this month’s Budget; like Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago, he declared that there was “no alternative” to the government’s current programme of austerity in the UK, and that all those who say otherwise think that “money grows on trees”.

As a matter of fact, there is now a huge body of economic opinion – apparently including David Cameron’s own business secretary, Vince Cable – which sees the current austerity drive as more of an ideological choice than an economic necessity; and which further argues that a policy which has led, since 2007, to an average decline of more than 4.5 per cent in the real incomes of ordinary British workers is doing far more to damage the economy than to restore it to health.

Yet the range of political debate in the UK has become so feeble, so restricted, so whipped into line by fear of a predominantly right-wing press, that this alternative view of the policy choices available rarely makes a strong appearance in public debate. Instead, we are subjected to a constant whining backbeat of language that simply assumes that cuts are “essential”, with the two main British parties disagreeing only on the depth and speed with which they should be made.

And the point about this kind of reactionary consensus among all the major parties is that it eventually brings democratic politics into disrepute. No-one in Britain wants or needs a charismatic ex-military leader like Hugo Chavez, known to his supporters as the “Commandante”; the battles fought for us by our parents and grandparents have left us in a far better place than the struggling people of Venezuela, even 

Yet in kow-towing so relentlessly to the same extreme model of capitalism against which Venezuela set its face 14 years ago – in allowing it to corrode our hard-won public services, to defame our benefits system, to commandeer public funds to bail out its own catastrophic failure, and to use the current recession as an opportunity to attack state provision in general – the current generation of British politicians only damage the democracy of which we were once so proud; indeed it is partly because our UK political system no longer seems to offer real choice that many Scots have now turned towards the idea of independence.

If those currently in power in the west want to draw one lesson from the life and death of Hugo Chavez, it is that they would be well advised to stop trying to use their cash to undermine democracy, and to cut the needs and aspirations of the many out of the political picture. For the evidence of recent South American history – as well as our own, in the decades after the Second World War – suggests that real political choice, and some genuine redistribution of wealth, is essential to unleash the creativity of the people, and to create economies with a long-term future.

And if it took a noisy, over-reaching Chavez to change the political weather on his continent, and to insist that the centre-left political option be restored in South America, then that is an indictment not of Chavez, but of those who once thought that they could write the dreams, the hopes, and the radical tradition of the people of South America clean out of history; and who finally had to be shown, however imperfectly, that they were wrong.