The Legacy of Hugo Chávez

By Gustavo Fuchs

Hugo Chavez led a process within Venezuela that saved the country from neoliberal failure, but the impact of his reforms was felt internationally. Hugo Chavez was at the heart of processes that forged new unity in South America, which began to overturn decades of U.S. domination in the region. Globally he became an international beacon for social justice, peace and a multipolar world seeking to counterbalance U.S global domination. Belowwe review important of Chavez’s legacy in Latin America and beyond.


Defeating free trade in America

One of Chavez’s most important regional achievements was defeating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA); a continental agreement that would have created a free-trade zone between the United States and Latin America.

From the moment he was elected, President Chavez began forging good relations with all the countries of Latin America in the same vein as independence leader Simon Bolivar’s dream of regional unity. In this spirit, Chavez found reliable friends and allies in Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. In 2005, the Common Southern Market (Mercosur) bloc of nations was set to vote whether or not it would join the U.S.-led FTAA.

The FTAA was opposed by hundreds of regional social movements and organizations, which led campaigns against the treaty warning that it would destroy small farmers, local industry and further lower environmental and labor standards. Due to the alliance forged by Chavez, Kirchner and Lula, on November 5, 2005, Mercosur rejected the FTAA, burying the project.

Building regional unity

After rejecting the FTAA, Chavez worked together with Latin America’s leaders to create new regional bodies, free of U.S. interference, to overcome centuries of foreign exploitation and build new agreements and solutions in the face of common issues.

President Chavez played a key role in building new regional institutions such as the ALBA group of nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which today are widely regarded as milestones in regional integration.

Extending regional solidarity: Restoring the sight of millions

Chavez sought to build regional unity in order to better the lives of the country’s people. Perhaps the clearest example was Mission Miracle; a joint Venezuelan-Cuban program aimed at restoring the sight of poor people with treatable eye conditions throughout Latin America.

Within its 10 years of existence, Mission Miracle has already treated 6 million Latin Americans, curing them of visual diseases such as cataracts; an unaffordable operation for many low-income people.


Reaching out to U.S. citizens

In 2005 President Chavez launched a program to provide subsidized oil to the United States for heating as show of solidarity with the people affected by the damage by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Through the CITGO Petroleum Corporation – a subsidiary of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA – hundreds of thousands of low-income homes in the U.S. have received access to cheap oil for heating, and low-income families can access up to 100 free gallons of oil if they are struggling to pay for their home heating. The program continues and has helped up to 1.8 million people since 2005. CITGO has also been providing free energy-saving lightbulbs to the poorest families in the U.S. since 2009 in an effort to reduce electricity spending.

Promoting global justice: The Salvador Allende Medical School

With the help of Cuba, and in an effort to improve health worldwide, the Venezuelan government opened the Salvador Allende Latin American School of Medicine in Caracas. Through different cooperation agreements, over 500 students from more than 15 African countries were granted scholarships to study in there. In total, 1600 students from 42 different countries around the world are currently studying medicine in the school.

In 2014, following the Israeli war on Gaza, the school granted scholarships to over 100 Palestinian students. That was the latest example of solidarity with the people of the Middle East, and follows strong statements and actions by Hugo Chavez in defense of the Palestinian people and against war the 2006 war on Lebanon.

Building a multipolar world

Chavez was a fierce advocate for a more just world, and he sought to transform the way in which countries related to each other. By promoting respectful and cooperative relationships with all nations, Chavez made Venezuela stand out in the international arena. With the United States conspiring against his government, Chavez soon understood the world should not be ruled by one superpower, but through a balance in which different powerful nations play their part and cooperate with others: A multipolar world.

Inspired by this guiding idea, Chavez built strategic alliances with Russia and China, and struggled to promote the ideal. “We will continue … promoting our international project of a multipolar world, where equality among states will prevail,” he said in 2006.

Venezuela has strengthened its relationship with China and Russia signing tens of joint projects with them. Venezuela also supports those countries as part of the BRICS bloc and their determination to create a development bank.

Venezuela and a united Africa

In line with his support for the BRICS group was Chavez’s advancement of South-South solidarity worldwide. To do this, the Venezuelan president established greater bonds with the African Union in an effort to bring Latin America and Africa closer together. By the year 2011, various African countries had signed over 200 agreements with Venezuela, ranging from cooperation in energy and finance to sharing technical and social knowledge. Venezuela became the only country in the world to have diplomatic relations with every African nation.

In 2014, the Venezuelan government, together with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, launched a joint program to help African countries cultivate rice crops, as rice represents over a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s food consumption. The US$62 million program will provide training and input to thousands of African farmers, and it is based on Venezuela’s successful efforts to eradicate hunger.

Chavez’s Legacy: Transforming the Lives of Millions

When Hugo Chavez won his first election as Venezuela’s President in 1998, it was against a backdrop of a deep economic and social crisis.

Venezuela’s economic performance was one of the worst in the world. Its economy per head had been falling for over 25 consecutive years. Living standards had been driven down, and just a few years before Chavez came to office over 40 percent lived in extreme poverty.

This despite the vast oil wealth that the country possessed. In the late 1950s Venezuela’s income per person was on a par with Britain. That era came crashing down thanks to misrule and, later, the implementation of neoliberal policies by the country’s political elite, which failed the Venezuelan people. As a result Venezuela’s income per head was lower in 1998 than it had been in 1960, in real terms.

Popular revolts against this decline were brutally repressed. In one incident alone – the Caracazo – up to 3,000 died and the constitution was suspended.

Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” — named after Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar — began to reverse these decades of failure, and after the state oil company was taken under full government control, following a coup attempt and failed oil strike in 2002-2003, the social improvements accelerated.

Poverty reduction and inequality

Arguably the most impressive achievements of the era of progressive change that begun with Chavez’s election is poverty-reduction programs, which have seen startling results.

When Chavez arrived in office in 1998, Venezuelan poverty levels were at 44 percent. The Revolution has reduced this substantially to 27 percent today. Whilst extreme poverty has declined from 20% to 5.4%, according to figures released earlier this week.

Inequality has also been tackled. Using the internationally recognized measurement, the Gini coefficient where zero represents perfect equality, inequality fell from 0.48 at the time of Chavez’s election to 0.38 today.

Tackling a humanitarian crisis

Free-market extremism devastated the living standards of the Venezuelan people. One clear example is the widespread hunger that afflicted the oil rich nation. In 1998, 21 percent of the population suffered from undernourishment according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations definition. Today that figure is just 2 percent.

Likewise, the number of underweight children at the end of the pre-Chavez was 5.3 percent, a figure that had halved by 2012. Today 95.4 percent of Venezuelans eat three times per day according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). Social programs providing subsidized food, free meals, and free school dinners have played a significant role in eradicating hunger and child malnutrition. Access to drinking water has significantly improved too, from 80 percent in 1998 to 96 percent today.

Enriching lives through public services

In the 15 years prior to Hugo Chavez, from 1983 to 1998, just 37 percent of the state budget went on social investment. In the 15 years of the since Hugo Chavez initiated the Bolivarian Revolution that figure has shot up to 61 percent.

As a result, Venezuela has risen substantially in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Increased social investment led to huge improvements in education, for example illiteracy was eradicated and Venezuela now has one of the world’s highest proportion of people attending university.

Healthcare was also a major beneficiary of this investment. Over 80% of Venezuelans have accessed the nation’s now-free public health system with some 700 million consultations via the more than 10,000 new free health centers. As a result, infant mortality in revolutionary Venezuela has dropped by a third and this effort is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Sharing the economic gains

The reversal of a 25-year economic decline has seen employment opportunities flourish. Unemployment was 14.5 percent in 1998, a figure which, today, has been reduced by two thirds, with over 4 million jobs since 1999. Employment in the formal sector has risen considerably to 60 percent. Whilst in retirement, many more have a dignified life, with the number of people accessing a state pension increasing from 387,000 pre-Chavez, to over 2.5 million today.

Backed by the people

All this progressive change has been backed in election after election. Since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, Venezuela has held 18 national elections with the coalition of supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution winning all but one. This is a greater number of elections than were held during the previous 40 years of Venezuelan democracy, following the fall of the dictatorship in 1958.

In Their Own Words: Remembering Chavez

When then President Hugo Chavez died on March 5, 2013, there was an outpouring of grief from those touched by one of the most iconic figures in Venezuelan history.

Chavez left his mark on history.

“Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline,” said then Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

“He is more alive than ever, and will keep being the inspiration for all people fighting for liberation,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales.

“Death is always felt, but when it is the death of a great fighter, one that I once defined as the most generous leader that I have ever met, the pain is on another dimension … It’s magnitude is bigger than the loss,” said Jose Mujica, then president of Uruguay.

“Today, as always, we recognize in him a great leader, an irreparable loss, and above all, a friend of Brazil and its people,” said Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

“We have lost a revolutionary, but millions of us remain inspired,” said Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

“If we have moved forward with a solid peace process [in Colombia], with clear and concrete progress, with progress that had never before been reached, it’s also thanks to the unlimited dedication and commitment of President Hugo Chavez and the government of Venezuela,” said Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia.

“I am proud to have lived and worked with him for the integration of Latin America and for a more just world,” said former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva.

“During his 14-year tenure, Chavez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration. Venezuelan poverty rates were cut in half, and millions received identification documents for the first time, allowing them to participate more effectively in their country’s economic and political life,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

“This is the first government – everyone concedes – that gave the population a sense of empowerment,” said linguist and prominent U.S. dissident Noam Chomsky.

“We love you with all our hearts,” Piedad Cordoba, former Colombian senator.

“I don’t have words … we should follow your example. We should continue constructing the homeland, always, my father!” Maria Gabriela Chavez, daughter of Hugo Chavez.

“The Palestinian people will be forever grateful to Chavez. His courageous support for our right to establish our own independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital will always remain etched in our people’s collective memory,” said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned,” said filmmaker Oliver Stone.

“He was an unorthodox and strong person, who looked to the future and always set himself the highest standards,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“What of the country he leaves behind? A paradise? Certainly not … but he leaves behind a very changed society in which the poor felt they had an important stake in the government. There is no other explanation for his popularity,” said author Tariq Ali.

“We have lost our best friend,” said Cuba’s Fidel Castro

“We are all Chavez!” Supporters of Chavez who rallied outside the hospital where he died.