For all the ink spilled in the past couple of weeks about the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, there has been remarkably little written in the North American media about his actual policies. The focus has all been on his personality, charisma and the common but totally spurious allegation that he was some kind of ‘dictator.’
This is a shame. Not just because it’s unfair to Venezuelans who elected and re-elected Chávez time and time again in free and fair elections with decisive majorities, but also because we miss out on some important lessons that could inform discussions of policy and politics here in B.C.
Venezuela under Chávez put the lie to the idea that “there is no alternative,” to the modern neoliberal economic system, a view popularized by right-wing ideologues and used to stifle all serious talk of policies that redistribute wealth or change relations of property and power in society. Poverty and extreme poverty were drastically reduced by massive new social programs, including everything from new health clinics in poor neighbourhoods to free education that led to a steep increase in literacy and post-secondary participation to construction of desperately needed new social housing.
These changes were not limited just to Venezuela. Over the 14 years that Chávez was in power, the entire region shifted politically, with socialist or at least social democratic governments sweeping into power in country after country. The reaction to Chávez’s death gave a sense of his Latin America wide impact – dozens of heads of government came to pay their last respects.
Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who leads a centre-left government, was strident in her memorializing.
“Men like Chávez never die,” she wrote. “They live and will live on in every Venezuelan man and woman who is no longer invisible and has become a protagonist. This man opened their minds. Now, nobody can close their minds, ever.”
Regardless of what one thought of Chávez as an individual political leader, it’s impossible to deny his historical impact. He will long be remembered as one symbol of a decade where the left regained confidence and assertiveness, at least in one region of the world.
And that brings me back to British Columbia. Here social democrats look poised to regain power without much trouble at all, thanks to the implosion of Christy Clark’s discredited government. But Adrian Dix and the NDP have gone to great lengths to keep expectations limited, signalling only modest changes. There is no indication of major new spending on social programs, and talk of increasing taxes on corporations has been limited to rolling them back to 2008 levels.
Dix himself has said that past NDP governments have tried to do too much, too fast. So it is that even the party’s election slogan – “change for the better, one practical step at a time” – seems designed to ward off any potential right-wing allegations of radical intent.
Perhaps the North American media’s skewed portrayal of Chávez, and their near silence on Latin America’s left turn, helps explain the NDP’s reluctance to propose many substantive measures for reducing the gaping inequality that has widened under the B.C. Liberals. In the mainstream media, anything that smacks of socialism, no matter how democratic, is still treated with contempt.
Back in the 1970s B.C. NDP Premier Barrett was labelled the “Allende of the North” by a U.S. financial magazine, in reference to the then democratically elected marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, who would later die along with thousands of others in a U.S.-backed coup.
Barrett’s response, which I’ve heard him explain in a couple of speeches to party faithful over the years, was direct. At a press conference, he held up the magazine and said something to the effect of ‘this is the proudest day of my life.’ In other words, Barrett didn’t have any time for smears-by-association with democratically elected leftist leaders.
Today’s NDP is a different beast, operating in a political climate battered by decades of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that many of those voting and supporting the NDP will look south and be willing to take ideas and inspiration from a continent that has pioneered anti-neoliberal thinking and practice.
There is an alternative. We just need to find the political courage to fight for it.