It is difficult for a sane person to understand why Hugo Chavez spent the last fourteen years of his political career under continual attack from both right and left in the West. Why, after all, should the antics of the leader of a not especially distinguished country, however unseemly they might have appeared to the imperial elite, have attracted so much attention?
Was it the fact that he was sitting on a titanic quantity of oil? Not at all; Venezuelan heavy crude is difficult to refine, and in reality virtually all the refineries are along the coastline of the United States. So unless and until other countries built refineries capable of dealing with this product, the United States had a gun which it could point at the head of Venezuela’s head of state. (It was, of course, a gun which would blow out Chavez’s brains all over Washington’s new suit, since slashing oil production would cause prices to rise further and thus potentially encourage people to seek other sources of power.)
Was it the fact that he was in charge of OPEC? Not at all. Once again; Venezuela is a major reserve of oil, and a substantial producer, but nothing like Saudi Arabia and with nothing like the potential of Iraq. It is the major Latin American member of OPEC, but OPEC is actually dominated by Gulf states who are all Western satellites anyway.
In fact, the situation seems to have been largely created by accident. By two accidents, to be precise. On one hand, under the Bush administration the United States had decided to temporarily disregard Latin America (its traditional back yard) and Africa (the new playground which Clinton and his friend Blair had discovered) in order to restructure the Middle East and adjacent regions of Central Asia in an image more suited to American interests. This was going to be a large-scale, long-term project and the United States was almost certainly aware that it would take a couple of Presidential terms to bring it to fruition. (This was an underestimate; it is still going on. Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!)
On the other hand, a mildly left-wing government had been elected in Venezuela, and another mildly left-wing government had been elected in Brazil, and another in Haiti. This did not, probably, greatly bother the Bush administration, which was not good at multitasking, but they did see that there was a potential for their basket of rotten apples in the continent to suddenly reverse trajectory and to start becoming fresh, healthy apples again — and that would never do.
So they stepped in to renew the rot. Brazil was too big a job to handle all at once (although they slyly wooed the Brazilian government with hints that if they would only stop this workerist, social democratic nonsense, there could be big friendly opportunities) so the other options were Venezuela and Haiti. In both countries the mildly left-wing governments were weak, seeking popular support by transferring wealth to the poor, and therefore had pissed off an armed and powerful elite. Nothing could be simpler than getting in touch with the elite and intimating to them that a discreet coup would not be opposed by the United States. Nothing was more pleasing and delightful to armed and powerful elites who felt their undeserved wealth and power slipping away, than using that wealth and power to renew their right to misrule their countries.
In other words, the coup of 2002 which overthrew Chavez was not a cunning plan organised from Washington but was rather an opportunistic act by Washington in aligning itself with the right-wingers in Caracas. It was not part of a carefully-wrought plan. This is worth thinking about, because if you believe that the United States’ domination of the world is a product of a careful and well-structured conspiracy, then you are liable to make assumptions about the way the United States is run, and about its future activities, which are likely to be inaccurate — and worse still, likely to incline you to think that you can’t possibly defeat this awesome conquering-machine and that you had better join it, as so many leftists have done throughout recent history.
In reality, the coup was bungled and failed, despite extensive American support for it. The end product was to force Chavez and his supporters into a more aggressive attitude towards the Venezuelan opposition who had supported the coup, and also into a more energetic attitude of support for the various left-wing and indigenous-peoples organisations throughout Latin America. The consequence was that the “Bolivarians” were strengthened in Bolivia and Ecuador, while soft-left organisations in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay and Chile were obliged to show some degree of solidarity with the Chavezistas. Chavez became much more publicly hostile to the U.S. government, and even talked about being a socialist; this doesn’t mean that he or his government were in any way socialistic, but it does mean that he was doing his best to irritate everybody who hates socialism, because he had become aware that these people were the enemies of his regime and it was worthwhile to force his followers to take a stand which would put plenty of space between themselves and their enemies.
The only American success at the time was the overthrow of Aristide in Haiti — which was an extremely poor consolation prize. Thereafter the United States was so concerned with trying to conquer the Middle East that it left the Latin American states alone (apart from one failed coup in Ecuador and, of course, the ongoing holocaust in American-occupied Colombia). It was only under the Obama administration that anything serious in the way of rollback was attempted, and this produced a very limited bag; the Honduran democratic government was overthrown by organised crime, and the Paraguayan democratic government was overthrown by the historically fascist Paraguayan ruling class. “Hurrah! We’ve got the poorest country in South America and the second-poorest in Central America back under our boots! What fun we shall have!”
None of this means that the situation is stable. (It is, however, significant that when the right wing took over democratically in Chile, it was unable or possibly even unwilling to destroy the good work done by its mildly left wing predecessor; it appears that truly reactionary politics, now as in the past in Latin America, can only be imposed by military might in the absence of democracy.) Still, Latin America is more united than it has ever been in the past and undeniably more democratic, and it is also less isolated than it has been in the past. This is because in addition to the Bolivarian political network and the universal hostility to American economic imperialism felt throughout the region, Brazil has jumped into bed with Russia and China, something which would simply not have been conceivable in the twentieth century when Brazil was little more than the corpse of a frog wired to a battery, jerking whenever the United States pressed the switch. BRICS is not an organisation which can be taken seriously — India and South Africa are not credible opponents of the United States — but it is certainly a straw in the global political wind. It is also an organisation of countries which — with the exception of South Africa — are likely to be politically important over the next few decades and who recognise that the United States is no supporter of their independence.
All this was largely made possible by Chavez’ stand. (It is extremely unlikely that Brazil would have joined BRICS in the absence of Bolivarismo.) It is also perfectly natural, incidentally, that pseudo-leftists like Patrick Bond are opposed to BRICS; such people are naturally opposed to anything which might bring about a genuine change in global power-balances, since such a change might force pseudo-leftists to take sides instead of piously declaring their hostility to a global regime which serves their personal interests.
Chavez himself, as a person, was demonised to an hilarious extent in the Western press. There is nothing unusual about this; a Two Minutes’ Hate requires an Immanuel Goldstein. Furthermore, there is nothing odd about demonising individuals rather than criticising regimes, for to criticise the Venezuelan government as a government would have required providing some sort of justification for that, and nowadays if you provide lots of false statistics there is always Google to prove you wrong. (Those who took the demonisation seriously, however, would not have bothered to Google anything; the process of crimestop would have seen to that, and they would simply have logged on to the right-wing Anglo-American websites which provide the false statistics in the first place, sometimes attributed to Venezuelan exile journalists whose salaries are paid from Langley.)
But Chavez as a person is not specially interesting. His death is not important precisely because he was a democrat and therefore was obliged to win the support of the Venezuelan public, meaning that the policies he pursued will inevitably continue unless someone steps in to stop them by main force which would have to entail crushing the Venezuelan working class. Ditto in most other countries in Latin America. What this means is that demonising Chavez accomplishes nothing except to keep the ignorant rabble in line in Britain (and the former Dominions) and the United States. Only in these countries does allegiance to the ruling class require allegiance to American elite propaganda; elsewhere, ruling classes tend to create their own propaganda. (In South Africa this generates cognitive dissonance, causing the utter incoherence of the ANC leadership in virtually all issues.)
It is true that demonising Chavez may have made it easier for the United States to take action against Venezuela, but it is difficult to believe that this would be an easy project to undertake. Eliminating the whole Bolivarian movement would be even more difficult, and eradicating the renascent leftism of Latin America would be virtually impossible. The grim fact is that Latin America is starting to take politics seriously — unlike virtually every left-winger in the West, or in South Africa for that matter — and this is not going to go away. Hence all the ooga-booga nonsense about Chavez and Venezuela and BRICS and any other progressive project, national or international, is of essentially no significance to anyone except the unserious.
Perhaps we in South Africa should start getting serious?