My cousin has become an activist for the opposition, a retired agronomist who will go into the barrios, probably for the first time in her life, to work for social change. If Chavez had done nothing else, he has at least galvanized the middle class to think of those less fortunate, instead of hiding behind the walls of their gated communities, even if they go only to counter him politically. I expect that my cousin will learn at least as much as she will teach. But Chavez seems to be doing much more than that: health care clinics, cooperatives, literacy programs, water and electricity to the barrios, vacant land occupations and much more, including cutting the poverty rate by 10%.
On the other hand, his political and security moves are worrisome. He has six more years, and he has consolidated all left-wing parties, and has begun a campaign against the private media, denying the renewal of a license for RCTV. The corporate media has been, admittedly, even more biased than Fox News, stridently anti-Chavez, but democrats everywhere get worried when freedom of the press is threatened. He has also beefed up his military, and armed a peoples militia.
Given history, though, you can hardly blame Chavez. The US did immediately support the coup d'etat that overthrew Chavez, the elected president, for two days in April, 2002, and there is conflicting evidence as to whether the US had a part in the coup itself. Further, it is incontestable that the US played a role in destabilizing Chile in the early 1970's and, at very least, supported Pinochet's overthrow of the Socialist government of Salvador Allende in September, 1973. I'm sure Chavez is very aware of the fate of Allende's peaceful revolution.
History has consequences. Chavez has clearly taken steps to prevent either destabilization (arguably attempted by the labor federation CTV in 2002), or a military coup, and his program to broaden Venezuela's market for oil beyond the US, and his regional trade pacts are, in part, understandable defensive measures, as well as a challenge to the Washington Consensus.
And why should he renew a TV license to a channel that used it to support a coup against the legitimate government? Broadcast TV should recognize that it has a public responsibility: it is granted a license to use the public's airwaves. If NBC supported a coup attempt against President Bush, would its license be automatically renewed?
While he has made mistakes, and while his programs have only begun to scratch the surface of his country's problems, Chavez offers something new, inspiring new leaders in Latin America to look for alternatives to the neo-liberal Washington Consensus dominated by the US.
We can just hope that the opposition will cohere enough that Chavez will be kept honest and democratic.
No leader, facing only token opposition, remains a democrat for long--as witness our own government under total Republican rule. Here's hoping that the opposition in Venezuela will force at least the honesty that we are hoping for from the Democrats taking over Congress in this country.