By virtue of being the most diverse and hybrid area on the planet, Latin America is a kind of potpourri that is difficult to understand due to the number of ingredients it contains. Are we the poor suburbs of the West, as some see it, or are we by now, after two centuries of independence, something new and different?
The old white elite, with something of an inferiority complex, used to aspire to be Spanish, English, French or, at worst, the American: They went to bullfights, played golf, drank French wine and did their shopping in Miami.
What we really are is a complex jumble of things, not a homogenous continent that can be summed up in sensationalist slogans that make little sense such as: “Homeland or death” or “Ever onward until victory.”
The Latin American left has itself many different ingredients. All of these lefts (and a few centers and rights) were at late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s funeral, some with genuine tears in their eyes, some concerned with making gestures for their domestic gallery, or to ensure the free oil keeps on coming, or perhaps with the secret satisfaction of seeing the corpse of an old enemy go by.
Let us start with the main oil widow: Cuba. The island is the last US bastion of the old Soviet Union and the Cold War. As in North Korea, Cuba has opted for a family succession that will end only when the Castro brothers die. Chavez used to call former Cuban president Fidel Castro “father;” it was to his father that he turned when he fell ill; and now we are witnessing the trauma of a father having to bury his own son, despite the so-called miracles of Cuban medicine.
Cuba is a dogmatic extreme for which, after 10 years of penury due to the fall of the Soviet bloc, Chavez’s arrival in power in 1999 meant manna from heaven. Cuba receives so much free oil from Venezuela that it can resell some to other Caribbean islands.
Let us just say that Chavez’s influence was in Cuba’s interest.
Venezuela is, without doubt, freer than Cuba. In Venezuela the Internet is available, as are newspapers and an opposition TV channel. Twitter is unrestricted and there are parties other than the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chavez’s party. While it continues under the single-party regime, with zero press freedom, Cuba has opened up a little, influenced by the fact that Chavez was clearly able to remain in power without restricting a few fundamental liberties.
In this mixture across the continent there is one bad ingredient: the hideous left of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Ortega went to Chavez’s funeral on international women’s day. Did anyone remind him of his stepdaughter’s allegations — 15 years on — that he repeatedly raped her over the course of 20 years? Or that he bought the support of the Catholic Church by banning abortion? Or that he has coopted all branches of power? There is noboby more of a disgrace to the Latin American left than he.
Oddly enough, the freshest ingredient in the Latin American left is the oldest. The most likeable face of the left is that of anti-consumerist hippy Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica, an ex-member of the left-wing Argentine guerrilla group known as the Montoneros.
What is more, he does not oppose any fundamental liberty. Uruguay is a free, just and sad country. Sad and dull: Young Uruguayans grow bored and choose to go and live elsewhere.
A president who gives away his salary, cooks his own lunch and turns up to the presidential palace in a clapped-out car inspires sympathy — even more when he attempts to legalize marijuana; he is a melancholic old man, practically the reflection of a country where there are more cows than people.
Let us now turn to the pro-indigenous left, with its clear racial overtones, of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
As Bolivia was for centuries ruled by an abusive white minority that oppressed and belittled the indigenous majority, it is natural to feel a sense of satisfaction when an Indian achieves power, at last. An Indian so proud of his race he even believes that they never go bald because they do not eat fast food or genetically modified vegetables. He has nationalized many European and US companies, because the country can now live off the gas it exports.
Is Brazil socialist? Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Vana Rousseff Dilma come from socialist movements, but they are first and foremost pragmatic presidents of a country as vast as a continent and the second case in the Americas of an ex-colony being more powerful and dynamic than the mother country.
Brazil is the opposite to Uruguay: Brazil is joy. The black Africans freed from slavery blessed them with a powerful, erotic and wonderful literature and music. The Brazilian left of Lula and Rousseff does not suffer racial resentment; nor does it see businessmen as enemies. As a skilled and astute trade unionist, Lula learned how to deal with them: To get as much out of them possible, without going so far as to tip them into bankruptcy or send them into exile.
What else? The oil-dealing left of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa which simultaneously shuts down local radio stations, threatens the press and offers asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Then there is Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the double heiress: to the old caudillo (strongman) Peron and to her husband. Her regime combines short-term public welfare solutions with endemic corruption. As the heiress to Peron and Evita she is a model for Venezuela: The Chavez movement aims to be a kind of new Peronism, without excluding its military, fascistic facet.
So now we come to Chavez, to his secret illness in Cuba, or to the “cancer caused by the empire,” as Acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said, in a fit of paranoid fantasy.
Well, there are precedents: Chavez also claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was the work of the US marines.
Chavez dies with all the rites of a pope, and there are still doubts as to whether to bury him next to Simon Bolivar the liberator in the National Pantheon, or instead to build a glass pyramid for him. Millions weep for him, in red mourning garb, in a kind of collective hysteria.
During his long mandate of 14 years, Chavez gradually converted to the Taliban-like fundamentalism of the Castro brothers: class hatred, sometimes even racial hatred, intimidation and threats to the opposition, verbal violence, the invitation to the middle classes to emigrate.
Chavez polarized Venezuela and encouraged a deepening of the hatred between classes. Nine million people voted for him and 6 million for the opposition, but to the Chavists this opposition was made up of “scum, wannabe Yankees, weaklings.”
It is possible that the old, white, shamefully corrupt elite deserved a lesson from a traditionally marginalized sector. However, does it make sense to expel the productive and corporate apparatus from the country? Nationalizing industry, farms, taking land away from productive landowners, scaring off all those who are, indiscriminately and without nuances, called “the rich” (when they are people who have simply built up capital by dint of hard work and good ideas) — is this advisable for a country?
Perhaps Marxist theory says “yes,” but as time goes by, does this work? Are the poor necessarily more good, more ethical, more deserving of all favors, and should the rich, the merchants, be expelled from the temple of the nation?
It is very appealing — and in Europe this is celebrated — not to be ruled by the crass incompetence of the yuppies from the World Bank, ridiculous in their cynical call for austericide. However, nor is the Chavez economic recipe very successful.
Let us see: The official exchange rate is 6 bolivars to the dollar, but on the street a dollar costs 18. Eighty percent of goods are imported, including food, and it is far easier to find whiskey or caviar than eggs and milk. Oil production went from 3.5 million barrels a year, with 32,000 workers, to 2.4 million, with 105,000 state workers. After an unprecedented oil bonanza, revenue from oil rose — despite the decrease in production — from US$14 billion to US$60 billion a year. Despite these astronomical sums, Venezuela’s external debt is 10 times bigger today than it was 10 years ago and the fiscal deficit exceeds 20 percent.
During his years in government Chavez received, from oil alone, more than US$500 billion: This was enough for him to carry out projects in his country, and to finance like-minded candidates and movements abroad. To some, this was internationalist generosity; to others, populist squandering. He did also reduced extreme poverty, inequality, child mortality and unemployment. The figures corroborate this. However, it is one thing to reduce poverty by offering work and education, and another to do so by giving things away.
Today, Chavez is being deified by his Venezuelan and international supporters as a new liberator of the Americas. In reality, there is a far more grim side to his figure, and after the euphoric paradox of the mourning period will come the backlash of reality. There will be new elections, which Maduro will probably win. However, the model of an oil caudillo cannot be exported to the rest of Latin America. It is not possible; and if it were, it would not be advisable.
Hector Abad is a Colombian novelist and journalist. His award-winning 2006 book Oblivion, A Memoir recounts his father’s fight for social justice and his subsequent death at the hands of paramilitaries in Medellin in 1987.
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2013