Q&A: Controversial Latin leader returns in triumph

With his defiance of the West, Hugo Chavez has become an iconic political renegade. He has major influence in South America, but are men like Chavez the region’s future – or its past?

Q: What’s the news? A: Hugo Chavez has made a dramatic return to Venezuela after a long period in Cuba for cancer treatment. He arrived in time to celebrate the country’s 200th anniversary since independence.

Q: Who is Hugo Chavez? A: A former paratrooper, Hugo Chavez has been President of Venezuela since 1998. He describes himself as a socialist and opposes capitalism, globalisation and US foreign policy. He is loved by many of his people but is accused by critics of ignoring human rights, suppressing opponents and seeking too much power.

Q: And why does he matter? A: Venezuela is an oil-rich country and an important regional player. Chavez has become notorious for supporting ‘rogue regimes’ like Iran and Cuba and for making life difficult for Western countries. He is trying to unite South American countries against the USA. He also advocates a particular political model which he hopes to spread in the region. He is a player in a battle of ideas, with his philosophy on one side and Western free market policies on the other.

Q: What is this political model? A: Chavez calls his philosophy Bolivarianism, after Simon Bolivar, who led Latin America to independence from Spain 200 years ago. It’s essentially a form of left wing populism. Chavez came to power by opposing Venezuela’s old economic and social elite. He promised to take money away from ‘predatory oligarchs’ and spend it on the country’s poor. He has nationalised industries and makes oil companies pay huge taxes to the government for the right to exploit Venezuela’s natural resources.

Q: What does he spend the money on? A: Since 1998, Chavez has spent billions on social programmes and education. Chavez also wants to encourage the growth of a strong Latin American culture, resisting what he sees as dangerous US influences. Part of that culture is built around his own personality cult.

Q: His own what? A: Authoritarian leaders often encourage their people to admire and almost worship them. Chavez likes to be called the ‘Comandante’, or Commander. He has his own TV show called Alo Presidente which he uses to talk about his political ideas and interview special guests. He is a natural performer, quizzing cabinet ministers, touring his country and sometimes even performing impromptu songs and dances.

Q: Does it work? A: Largely, yes. Many Venezuelans, especially the poor who have been helped by his reforms, are passionate supporters. His return to the country this week was greeted with tears, celebration and parades.

Q: He sounds like a dictator! A: Many people say he is one, although he doesn’t have unrestrained political power. In South America they have a word for Chavez’s style of leadership: Caudillismo. It means the rule of a political ‘strong man’ – not exactly a tyrant but someone who uses personal charisma, control of the media, and crowd-pleasing policies to gain huge political authority. There have been many Caudillos in Latin America’s history.

Q: Is Chavez a good leader? A: It’s a controversial question. Under his rule, many Venezuelans have been lifted out of poverty and access to education and healthcare has dramatically improved. The question is whether this is sustainable. Critics say he has only been able to deliver wealth because of an ‘oil bonanza’ which allowed him to sell Venezuelan oil at very high prices. The economy, they argue, is still plagued with corruption and when oil prices drop, Chavez will quickly run into trouble.

Q: And what is his role internationally? A: Chavez sees himself as a rebel against US imperialism. He resists US attempts to interfere with South American politics and has tried to build his own alliance of South American states. Western countries regard him as a troublemaker. However, although he claims to represent Latin America, his importance is often overstated. While Chavez postures noisily other countries are quietly getting on with business. Brazil, once an economic disaster, is now becoming a major world power while Venezuela stubbornly refuses to play ball.

You Decide

  1. Can strong man leadership ever be a good thing?
  2. Is Chavez right to oppose the USA?

Activities

  1. Find out more about Venezuela, then design a map with key facts, figures and locations.
  2. Write an imaginary political speech for a charismatic leader called 'El Generalissimo'. How can you create a cult of personality?

Some People Say...

“The world needs more political rebels.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Venezuela
A large tropical country on the Caribbean coast of South America
Socialist
Socialism is a political philosophy which advocates redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor and government control of much of business and industry.
Globalisation
The process whereby international trade is opened up. Globalisation means countries have to compete on global markets.
Free market
In free markets, people can buy and sell goods and services without government interference. Non-free markets often involve government controls like taxes, import restrictions or price controls.
Latin America
A term for the parts of America that were colonised by Portugal or Spain. It includes most of South and Central America.
Populism
Appealing to the people. The word is often used critically to indicate policies that are headline grabbing and popular but badly thought through.
Oligarchs
Oligarchy is 'rule by the few'. An oligarch is a member of a wealthy and powerful elite.

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