The death last week of the President of Venezuela, Commandante Hugo Chavez, caught me by surprise, although I was aware of his hospitalization in Cuba. I held the optimistic belief that Chavez, a tough survivor, would triumph over his illness as Fidel Castro, his acclaimed mentor, triumphed over his. No, the Grim Reaper took away the fiery, down-to-earth leader at the unripe age of 58.
(I have decided to interrupt the current series on the work of Odia Ofeimun to pay homage to Chavez, champion of the wretched of his earth, negro e indio. Interrupt is the word, for it is possible to speak of Ofeimun and Chavez in the same sentence: if he had the chance, Ofeimun will readily produce a monograph-length opinion about the leader of the country that has given him enough inspiration to fructify into a volume of poems, titled A Boiling Caracas.)
Commentaries about Chavez’s life have been as much about his remarkable achievement as a leader as about his sense of drama—theater is the word often used by commentators. He was a populist who liked to do things for the camera, so goes the argument: working the crowds, kissing children, personally answering letters addressed to him by the teeming poor of his country, and most dramatic of all, playing guitar on national television and singing the sonorous llaneras from the southern plains of his origins.
Why applaud a political figure known to be doing good for his country and also affecting the image of an anti-imperialist (think of Robert Mugabe)? Why not try, if possible, to know from trusted sources within the given country? In his public statements, Chavez had a penchant for praising leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad., who reportedly visited Chavez’s mother days after his demise.
Two things seem to mark Chavez as a unique politician: his attitude to the US leadership as he demonstrated through book endorsements, and his use of Venezuela’s oil wealth to change his country for the better. The latter was proof enough of his genuineness as a social democrat, but the theater attached to the second is too captivating to ignore.
During the 2006 UN General Assembly, he used the podium famously to disparage the US president George W. Bush: “The devil came here yesterday,” he began, “and it still smells of sulfur today, at this table where I’m standing now.” He then went on to speak more directly, saying that the “gentleman to whom I refer as the devil…spoke as if he owned the world.”
Calling Bush “the devil” right in his own country was a sign of defiance, a tad unpresidential if you were about decorum, but Chavez was deliberate in the act. In fact, at the beginning of the speech, he had endorsed Noam Chomsky’s book, Hegemony of Survival, “an excellent book that helps us to understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century.” In short, he honored one American and dishonored another in one fell swoop, but the comment about Bush is the one most people remember.
Also, during the Organization of American States summit in Trinidad in 2009, he did something dramatic: he rose from his seat, walked across the room and held out a book to another US president, this time the newly-elected Barack Obama. The title was The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano’s famous historical work from the 1970s. The gesture was classic Chavez: common touch with a certain boyish charm. Both men later posed for a picture in formal presentation, and Obama joked that he thought he was being given one of Chavez’s books.
Many believed that the failed attempt to overthrow him in 2002 (eagerly supported by Bush’s White House) was motivated by greed for Venezuela’s oil deposit, said to be larger than Saudi Arabia’s. It is also the case that the government was attempting something unprecedented in Latin America in recent history: a social welfare state that catered primarily to the needs of the poor, negro e indio—blacks and Indians. Welfare programs headlined Chavez’s reign. Land previous held by the rich few was systematically redistributed; comatose industries received a new lease on life so long as they stood to reduce poverty. Most of these programs were criticized for being used as membership drives for the ruling party, but the fact is that the poor had never had such a deal before.
What if Nigeria had a leader half this visionary? The closest Nigeria got to having a Chavez was General Murtala Mohammed, back in the last century. Imagine how far a sensible use of oil money would take the country, how much saner we would feel as a society. Chavez was not perfect, but on the strength of his welfare programs, he is worthy of emulation in a country as wasteful as ours.
Akin Adesokan, an award wining author and former newspaper reporter, is now a professor of Literature at the University of Indiana in the United States.