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Hugo Chávez Dead: Transformed Venezuela & Survived U.S.-Backed Coup, Now Leaves Uncertainty Behind

We spend the hour on the life of Chu00e1vez, his legacy, and what may come next in Venezuela.

With the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez after a two-year fight with cancer, we host a roundtable discussion on a revolutionary leader whose democratic-socialist policies not only transformed his country, but helped steer the entire Latin American region away from U.S.-backed neoliberalism. We’re joined by five guests: Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College professor and author of two books on Venezuela; Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger, a friend and adviser to Chávez; New York University professor and author Greg Grandin; Gregory Wilpert, founder of; and Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. We spend the hour on the life of Chávez, his legacy, and what may come next in Venezuela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Venezuela has announced seven days of mourning for its president, Hugo Chávez, who has died at the age of 58. Chávez died after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis in June of 2011. He had suffered multiple complications following his latest operation in Cuba on December 11th and had not been seen in public since then. News of Chávez’s death was delivered Tuesday in an emotional address by Vice President Nicolás Maduro.

VICE PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] We accompanied his daughters, his brother, his family members, and we received the hardest and the most tragic of news that we will ever transmit to our people: At 4:25 in the afternoon today, the 5th of March, Comandante President Hugo Chávez Frías died.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hugo Chávez’s body will be taken in a procession to the Military Academy in Caracas, where it will lie in state until his funeral on Friday. Venezuela’s schools and universities have been shut for the week. Vice President Maduro will assume the presidency until an election is called within 30 days. Foreign Minister Elías Jaua told state television that Maduro would also be the candidate of Chávez’s governing United Socialist Party.

FOREIGN MINISTER ELÍAS JAUA: [translated] The president read the constitution correctly on December 8th during his last public speech that he was able to give, and it is clearly established what will follow and what we always defended. He is gone now, and the vice president assumes power, and we hold elections in the next 30 days. That’s the mandate that Hugo Chávez issued last December 8th, and he asked all of his Bolivarian revolutionaries to accompany Nicolás Maduro in this task. And that is what we are going to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was defeated by Chávez last October, offered his condolences to the president’s family and called for unity as the nation mourns.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: [translated] To the government, who are burdened with the principal responsibility of guaranteeing coexistence in freedom and in peace, we hope, like all Venezuelans do, that they act in strict accordance with their constitutional duties. And our national armed forces should remain for all, because they belong to everyone, as it is in the constitution and its proud history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leaders from around the world sent their condolences to the Chávez family. Some allies, like Ecuador, called for national days of mourning in their own country. This is Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, but first this is Bolivian President Evo Morales remembering Chávez.

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] He fought for his country, for the great nation, like Simón Bolívar, a friend who gave his entire life for the liberation of the Venezuelan people, the people of Latin America and all anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists of the world.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] On many occasions, the Brazilian government did not completely agree with President Hugo Chávez. But today, as always, we must recognize that he was a great leader, an irreparable loss, and above all, a friend of Brazil, a friend of the Brazilian people.

PRESIDENT OLLANTA HUMALA: [translated] To the Venezuelan people, we wish to express our unity of reflection and our hope that things can progress in a passive manner with the cause of democracy in mind. We want to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people, with the family of our friend, President Hugo Chávez Frías.

AMY GOODMAN: The presidents of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

Here in the United States, President Obama called Chávez’s passing a “challenging time” for Venezuela. This comes as Vice President Maduro of Venezuela announced Tuesday he is expelling a U.S. embassy military attaché, accusing him of spying on the Venezuelan military and meeting with right-wing military officers in a plan to destabilize Venezuela. Maduro also said a “scientific commission” would look into Chávez’s death and the possibility his “historical enemies” had somehow induced his cancer.

Well, today we host a roundtable to look at the life of Hugo Chávez, his legacy and what may come next for Venezuela. We’ll begin in California, where we’re joined by Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College of Claremont, California, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and the forthcoming Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Your response to the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez?


I think it’s a tremendous loss for Venezuela and a loss for Latin America and as an advocate for South-South relationships. Just recall where Venezuela was in 1998. It had no real presence on the international stage. He had this oil-producing country that had 60 percent people living in poverty. Today, that has dramatically changed. Poverty has been reduced significantly within Venezuela, and you have a new sense, a new empowerment, a new feeling and a new sentiment, not only within Venezuela but within Latin America as a whole, and as an advocate of South-South relationships. And I think that, even in death, he will continue to be an important symbol for the very policies he advocated in life and for the integration of Latin America and its new role on the international stage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to also welcome Eva Golinger. She has been well known as an American lawyer who has worked with the Venezuelan government and was close to President Chávez. Your reaction on this day after his death?

EVA GOLINGER: Well, it’s incredibly sad, of course. It’s a tremendous tragedy for Venezuela, for people of Venezuela, for people of Latin America, I would say also for people around the world who fight for social justice. Chávez was a champion for the poor, for social justice, against imperialism, against aggression, against war. He’s someone who has left an extraordinary legacy, not just in his own country, I think, but around the world. It’s an unbelievable tragedy that someone so young, with so much energy, with so much charisma, and with so much determination to continue building his great country and this concept of la Patria Grande, the Great Homeland, in Latin America, would leave us so soon. So I think that Venezuelans and peoples around the world are going to mourn seriously his loss.

AMY GOODMAN: From two Venezuelan Americans, we go to Greg Grandin, also in our New York studio, currently a Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library, author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. His most recent book, Fordlandia, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. His new book is called Empire of Necessity. It will be published later this year. Greg Grandin, talk about who Hugo Chávez was. Give us a little, short history of his life.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, in many ways, if you look at how his life tracks the history of Latin America, it’s quite amazing. He was born a few days after the 1954 coup in Guatemala that drove Jacobo Árbenz from power. And that coup, in many ways, culminated the subordination of Latin America to the United States in the Cold War.

AMY GOODMAN: Because the U.S. was involved.

GREG GRANDIN: The U.S. led that coup, yeah. And that happened in a few days. And his life pretty much ran the whole trajectory, from that moment forward, of U.S. power in Latin America. It saw the rise and extension of U.S.-backed militarism throughout the region, Venezuela a little bit less than some of the other more homicidal anti-communist countries, but nonetheless Venezuela was closely allied to the United States during the Cold War. He came of age under a political regime that was often held up as a little United States, in which two ideologically indistinguishable parties traded power back and forth between 1958, ’59 up through the 1990s.

And then he died, and Latin America has largely led this remarkable movement for independence that he was—that he helped broker. When he came to power in—elected in 1998, when you think about it, the whole region was governed by neoliberals or, you know, pretty much allies and executors of the Washington Consensus neoliberalism. And he was the first person that began to challenge that in power. Lula in Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected in 2002; Néstor Kirchner in 2002; Evo Morales a few years later; Rafael Correa in Ecuador. But it really was, in some ways, Chávez that led that remarkable, incredible movement that’s world historical. It’s unprecedented.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one point I made in my column in the Daily News today on Chávez is that, to the degree that he was seen by the United States and Europe as the most radical of Latin American leaders, he created space for an enormous diversity of other left-oriented leaders that seemed almost more acceptable to the West up against the figure, the lightning-rod figure, of Chávez.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, for a long time, Washington policymakers and opinion makers were trying to create this idea that there were two lefts—a good left and a bad left—in Latin America, vegetarian left and a carnivore left. And the kind of emblematic leaders of that was Lula in Brazil, a reformist, you know, administered within the institutions of law, and Chávez. You know, fiery populist is a word—a description that I’m sure has been used kind of like Mad Libs, you know, in obituaries of Chávez. But in reality, they actually worked together very nicely. I mean, if you read the WikiLeaks cables, it was no—the U.S. was constantly trying to push this notion of a division or a divide between Brazil and Venezuela, and Brazil constantly rebuffed it. And certainly, Chávez’s more flamboyant style on the world stage created a much more willingness to work with so-called more moderate reformers like Lula. And I would argue that their differences had more to do with the political structures that they inherited than anything. And I think they both, in very real ways, had exactly the same goal.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and continue this roundtable discussion and also bring you clips of our exclusive discussions with President Hugo Chávez, as well as the vice president, Nicolás Maduro, who will run for president in this next 30 days. And the question is: Where will Venezuela go? This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You can go to our website to see an in-depth look at Democracy Now!’s coverage of Hugo Chávez over the years and related stories at, as we continue on this day after the death of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Gregory Wilpert, you have written extensively on the Venezuelan revolution, but especially you have focused on what most of the rest of the people in the United States and other parts of the world have not seen, which is the domestic impact of Chávez’s revolution on the everyday life of the Venezuelan people. I’m wondering if you could talk about that. For instance, you’ve written that the number of cooperatives in Venezuela escalated from about a thousand to 100,000 during the Chávez years. Could you speak about that?

GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah. I mean, Miguel Tinker Salas mentioned a couple of those changes, such as the decline in poverty, which is very important. I mean, there are certain things that people always focus on, and certainly the poverty one is very important, which declined by half during the—during Chávez’s presidency. Also, extreme poverty declined by more than two-thirds.

But in addition to these kind of standard-of-living improvements that happened for Venezuela’s poor majority, there were also these elements of participatory democracy that had been introduced with Chávez’s election. One of the most important, I think, is actually the introduction of communal councils in Venezuela. Over 30,000 communal councils were introduced, which are basically direct participatory, direct democratic structures throughout the country where people work on neighborhood improvement projects, and they really feel like they have a stake and acquire an ownership of their community. This is just one example. And, of course, the cooperatives and self-managed workplaces are others.

I mean, Chávez was really trying to introduce socialism and putting it on the map, really, back again on the map for the 21st century. And it wasn’t just an economic socialism, but also a political socialism, by which he meant a participatory democracy, which is what he was trying to create.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that’s an image quite different from what we receive here of an authoritarian leader.

GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, absolutely. I mean, certainly Chávez had his top-down management style, which certainly clashed and bothered many people. But on the other hand, one cannot deny, I think, that participation in Venezuela increased, from any measure that you look at, whether it’s the Latinobarómetro polls, which show that Venezuelans believe that their democracy is more democratic than it had ever been and in comparison to what other people say of other countries in Latin America, and also that they’ve—they’re participating much more in elections. I mean, participation and registration have increased dramatically. Voting centers and polling stations throughout the country have been distributed to poor neighborhoods where people used to have to wait a whole day in order to vote. Now it’s reduced tremendously, and it’s much faster. So there’s—just in every measure, like I said, there’s more participation in the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands celebrated in the streets of the capital Caracas after the results of the 2012 election were announced. Chávez held a replica of the sword of independence hero Simón Bolívar during the victory celebration at a rally outside the presidential palace. Chávez reached out to the political opposition and called for unity among Venezuelans.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] To those who promote hate, to those who promote social poison, to those who are always trying to deny all the good things that happen in Venezuela, I invite them to dialogue, to debate and to work together for Venezuela, for the Bolivarian people, for the Bolivarian Venezuela. That’s why I start by sending these greetings to them and extending these two hands and heart to them in the name of all of us, because we are brothers in the fatherland of Bolívar.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez last year after his election. We’re also joined by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs, adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Your assessment of President Chávez’s legacy and what he represented?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think he did—Chávez really put his finger on legitimate grievance of social injustice and social inequality in Venezuela and throughout much of Latin America. He deserves a lot of credit for that, and I think that was his great contribution.

The problem is, I don’t think he really constructed an alternative after 14 years, and I think mainly because his style, his approach, was that he made all the decisions. He concentrated power in his own hands. And that’s very, very difficult to construct an effective system, a governance model, when only one person makes all the decisions. So, my sense is that he had a great opportunity because he had tremendous charisma, connected with the Venezuelan people, cared about the Venezuelan people, and the Venezuelans felt that. And he had a lot of resources. Oil prices went up substantially from the time he came in in 1999 ’til now. He really had an opportunity to reshape in a significant way and put the country on a sustainable path of development. I’m not sure that if one looks at Venezuela today that it’s on that path.

And I think you have enormous problems that are there. There are shortages of basic goods. There is the highest inflation rate in Latin America. Crime is off the charts. If you look at the crime rate when he came in versus the crime rate today, there’s tremendous insecurity. Caracas is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world today. So, this is not a government that I think has been very competent and very effective. And I think it’s a product of the fact that he is somebody who believed that he represents the general will of Venezuelan people. He is a legitimate president, there’s no question about that, but you also need to, I think, bring in other sectors of the society, and he was a very polarizing figure. So I think he deserves credit. I think his legacy is a mixed one. But I think, in the end, this will be seen as a great opportunity for Venezuela that was squandered in the end.

AMY GOODMAN: Eva Golinger, your response?

EVA GOLINGER: Well, I think that at least Michael Shifter recognized Chávez’s legacy in terms of changing the lives of Venezuelans, and particularly the poor, but I strongly disagree with the assessment of the fact that he didn’t build, one, a sustainable model, two, an alternative, viable alternative, for the country and for the region, because, before as Greg was saying, Chávez opened the door, opened a pathway, began that pathway and took that road to transforming Latin America forever. I mean, Venezuela has been transformed forever.

Talking about the level of participation, today in Venezuela more Venezuelans participate than ever before in history. Everyone has a voice. Everyone wants to be active and involved. Before Chávez came into power—and I lived there during that time—it was a country full of apathy, full of apathy, full of exclusion, people who didn’t even care about participating because their participation meant nothing. That’s changed 100 percent and will never reverse its course.

At the same time, much has been focused on Chávez the man, Chávez Chávez, because he was an all-encompassing figure, he was larger than life. You know, he had this enormous personality and tremendous charisma. But at the same time, the vision that he had and that he began to implement collectively along with the people of Venezuela was about power to the people. And I think there’s no question that that has taken root in the country today. And we’ve seen it: Even after Chávez was elected in October and then was diagnosed again that the cancer had returned, and he was unable to participate in elections that followed after that for governors, for regional elections, nonetheless—he didn’t appear in one campaign event—his party won in 20 out of 23 states in the country. I mean, it was a clear showing of the leadership that was growing within the ranks of his party. At the same time, we’ve seen, you know, people are pouring into the streets of Venezuela, and have been throughout this time period, saying, “I am Chávez.” And that doesn’t just mean, you know, “I love Chávez.” It means “Chávez represented me, represented my family, my community, my interests.”

And I think that today what we’re seeing in Venezuela, through these communal councils, through all this popular participation, is a collective leadership that has grown. And I think that in the end, that was Chávez’s overall objective, how to transfer that power into the hands of the people, empower the people so that they feel they have the capacity to govern their nation. And I think that that has unquestionably happened in Venezuela, and that’s one of the strongest elements of Chávez’s legacy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Greg Wilpert, what about these issues that Michael Shifter raises of the increasing crime rate in Venezuela—I’m not sure that Caracas is yet at the level of the place of my birth, Puerto Rico, in terms of crime rates, but it certainly has escalated dramatically—and the inflation situation and the unsustainability of the economic model that Chávez has developed?

GREGORY WILPERT: Well, I mean, I obviously disagree, as well, that I think it’s definitely sustainable. Venezuela, for example—I mean, people keep mentioning the inflation. True, it’s very high, but it’s lower than it was in the pre-Chávez years. It averaged 50 percent per year in the two presidents before Chávez. And he brought it—Chávez brought it down to around 20 percent in these last couple years. The average, I think, is around 22 percent per year. So that’s a decent achievement for an oil-producing country that basically earns its foreign currency in oil and funnels it back into the social programs, into the economy. And that, of course, generates inflation. But as long as incomes rise faster than inflation, it’s not really that big a deal. I mean, it’s a hassle, it’s a problem, but it’s not unsustainable.

The other thing is, I think that certainly crime is an issue, and it is a serious problem. I think it was basically based on a miscalculation on the part of the government. They believed that once you get poverty down, crime would go down by itself. And they didn’t do enough to actually make sure that there’s enough police, a decently functioning judicial system. And that’s really one of the big areas where a lot more needs to be done. But other than that, really, I think that, like I said, economically and socially, there’s been tremendous achievements in the last couple of years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, I’d like to ask you about the issue of oil and the importance of oil in Venezuela to the Chávez revolution. But first, I’d like to play a clip of an interview that we did back in 2005 when President Chávez was here for the United Nations General Assembly, one of the first televised interviews that he did here in the United States, where he spoke to Democracy Now! about the role of oil in his country.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHÁVEZ: [translated] So we’re now providing—first we’re ensuring the supply of oil, direct supply of oil from state to state, in order to avoid the speculation of multinationals and traders. They buy gasoline in Venezuela, and then they go to a Caribbean country and they charge double. So we are selling the products to the states directly. We are not charging for freight. We assume the cost of freight. But apart from that, this discount is not of 25 percent. It goes to 40 percent of the total. And this money will be paid back in 25 years’ time, with two years of grace and 1 percent interest rates. So, if you make all of the mathematical calculations, the donation percentage is almost 70 percent, because it’s a long-term adjusted 1 percent. So what Venezuela’s doing is supplying 200,000 barrels of oil to the Caribbean and other Central American and South American countries, such as Paraguay, Uruguay and smaller nations in South America—200,000 millions of barrels. If you apply calculations, mathematical calculations, by 1.5 percent of our GDP—1.5 percent of the GDP is devoted to this cooperation—it means that we are financing these sister nations that next year will reach $1.7 billion a year. In 10 years, it’s $17 billion. It’s a way for us to share, to share our resources with these countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Hugo Chávez in September of 2005 in an interview, exclusive interview, with Democracy Now! that he held with Amy and myself. I wanted to ask you, Miguel Tinker Salas, the impact of the oil policies of President Chávez on the independence of the Latin American region and the ability to export the idea of a social revolution throughout Latin America?

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yeah, I think oil has to be understood as something that is not simply an economic question for Venezuela. It’s also a very important political, symbolic and cultural element within Venezuelan society. For Venezuelans, it was supposed to be the vehicle to modernization. And when Chávez comes to power in 1998, oil prices were less than $7 a barrel. So, in many ways, what the government had to do was to reconstruct a vision of Venezuela that included oil as part of the motor of change, of social change in Venezuela, not only for Venezuela, but also for the region. And oil was its most important cachet.

So, the first stage we saw was an effort to reclaim the oil industry, which began to operate essentially as an international conglomerate that was housed in Venezuela but did not really consider itself Venezuelan. So that was the first stage we saw in the context of reclaiming oil and attempting to create oil within a sustainable bandwidth in which Venezuela could sell oil commercially and then also initiate social programs and then also be able to provide it, as it did in the San José Accords in the 1970s, along with Mexico, to Central American countries, to Caribbean countries, that had to pay very onerous prices. So what Chávez’s government does is to use oil not simply to buttress relations with the U.S., but to buttress relations with Latin America in a very important way, to provide oil and long-term credits to countries like Nicaragua, like Dominican Republic, like Jamaica and other countries in the region, and including Cuba, and using that to create a tremendous amount of political goodwill, because it recognized that Venezuela has an important role, not simply as a purveyor of energy to the First World, to the U.S., which was its dominant trading partner, but really to Latin America.

And then that notion of economic nationalism, of economic sovereignty, spread throughout Latin America. We saw the same example in Bolivia nationalizing the gas industry. We saw Ecuador rejoining OPEC. We saw the creation of Petrocaribe, a Caribbean initiative that provided oil at short-term—long-term credit rates to the Caribbean. We saw the provision of oil to—of heating oil to communities in the U.S. under the banner of Citgo, so that Northeastern communities that had to pay onerous prices received oils at subsidized prices, as well. And we saw also Petrosur, the creation of a South American oil body that actually helped negotiate conditions for oil industry.

So, in many ways, many of that is attributable to the policies that the Chávez government instituted. And I think that’s what was sustainable. I think the previous system that had existed before 1998 was unsustainable. And the reality is that with that kind of recasting of oil, and of its symbolic importance as a part of the integral development of social development of Venezuela, we saw that clash between the imaginary Venezuela that saw itself simply as an international oil-producing country, and now reclaiming the oil industry as part and parcel of the social development within Venezuela, a major chasm had developed. And I think that’s what was healed under the Chávez administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Miguel Tinker Salas; and Gregory Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis; Eva Golinger, Venezuelan-American attorney, close friend of President Chávez; Greg Grandin of New York University, New York Public Library; and Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion—also ask the question: How is it that President Chávez managed to survive a coup against him, that other leaders, from Aristide to Salvador Allende, to President Zelaya of Honduras, did not manage to survive? Stay with us.

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