MEDELLIN – By virtue of being the most diverse and hybrid area on the planet, Latin America is a kind of potpourri that is difficult to understand due to the number of ingredients it contains. Are we the poor suburbs of the West, as some see it, or are we by now, after two centuries of independence, something new and different?
The old white elite, with something of an inferiority complex, used to aspire to be Spanish, English, French or, at worst, the United States: They went to bullfights, played golf, drank French wine and did their shopping in Miami. What we really are is a complex jumble of things, not a homogenous continent that can be summed up in sensationalist slogans that make little sense such as “Homeland or death” or “Ever onward until victory.”
The Latin American left has itself many different ingredients. All of these lefts (and a few centers and rights) were at Hugo Chavez’s funeral, some with genuine tears in their eyes, some concerned with making gestures for their domestic gallery, or to ensure the free oil keeps on coming, or perhaps with the secret satisfaction of seeing the corpse of an old enemy go by.
Let’s start with the main oil widow: Cuba. The island is the last American bastion of the old Soviet Union and the cold war. As in North Korea, in Cuba they have opted for a family succession that will end only when the Castro brothers die. Chavez used to call Fidel “father”; it was to his father that he turned when he fell ill; and now we are witnessing the trauma of a father having to bury his own son, despite the so-called miracles of Cuban medicine. Cuba is a dogmatic extreme for which, after 10 years of penury due to the fall of the Soviet bloc, Chavez’s arrival in power in 1999 meant manna from heaven. Cuba receives so much free oil from Venezuela that it can resell some to other Caribbean islands.
Let’s just say that Chavez’s influence was in Cuba’s interest. Venezuela is freer than Cuba. In Venezuela they have the Internet, they have newspapers and an opposition TV channel. Twitter is unrestricted, and there are parties other than the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), Chavez’s party. While it continues under the single-party regime, with zero press freedom, Cuba has opened up a little, influenced by the fact that Chavez was clearly able to remain in power without restricting a few fundamental liberties.
In this mixture across the continent there is one bad ingredient: the hideous left of Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua. Ortega the man went to Chavez’s funeral on international women’s day, March 8. Will anyone have reminded him of his stepdaughter’s allegations — 15 years on — that he repeatedly raped her over 20 years? Or that he bought the support of the Catholic church by banning abortion? Or that he has co-opted all branches of power? There is perhaps no one more of a disgrace to the Latin American left than he.
Oddly enough, the freshest ingredient in the Latin American left is the oldest. Of the faces of the left, perhaps the most likeable is that of the Uruguayan president and anti-consumerist hippy Jose “Pepe” Mujica, an ex-member of the leftwing Argentinian guerrilla group known as the Montoneros. What’s more, he does not oppose any fundamental liberty. Uruguay is a free, just and sad country. Sad and dull: young Uruguayans grow bored and choose to go and live elsewhere. A president who gives away his salary, cooks his own lunch and turns up to the presidential palace in a clapped-out car inspires sympathy — even more when he attempts to legalize marijuana; he is a melancholic old man, practically the reflection of a country where there are more cows than people.
Let us turn now to the pro-indigenous left, with its clear racial overtones, of Evo Morales in Bolivia. As Bolivia was for centuries ruled by an abusive white minority that oppressed and belittled the indigenous majority, it is natural to feel a sense of satisfaction when we see an Indian achieve power, at last. An Indian so proud of his race he even firmly believes that they never go bald because they don’t eat fast food or genetically modified vegetables. He has nationalized many European and North American companies, as now the country can live off the gas it exports.
Is Brazil socialist? Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Vana Rousseff Dilma come from socialist movements, but they are first and foremost pragmatic presidents of a country as vast as a continent and the second case in the Americas of an ex-colony being more powerful and dynamic than the mother country.
Brazil is the opposite to Uruguay: Brazil is joy. The black Africans freed from slavery blessed them with a powerful, erotic and wonderful literature and music. The Brazilian left of Lula and Rousseff does not suffer racial resentment; nor does it see businessmen as enemies. As a skilled and astute trade unionist, Lula learned how to deal with them: to get as much out of them possible, without going so far as to tip them into bankruptcy or send them into exile.
What else? The oil-dealing left of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, which simultaneously shuts down local radio stations, threatens the press and offers asylum to Julian Assange. Then there is Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the double heiress: to the old caudillo Peron and to her husband. Her regime combines short-term public welfare solutions with endemic corruption. As the heiress to Peron and Evita she is a model for Venezuela: the Chavez movement aims to be a kind of new Peronism, without excluding its military, fascistic facet.
And so we come to Chavez, to his secret illness in Cuba, or to the “cancer caused by the empire,” as former Vice President Nicolas Maduro said, in a fit of paranoid fantasy. Well, there are precedents: Chavez also claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was the work of the U.S. Marines. Chavez dies with all the rites of a pope, and there are still doubts as to whether to bury him next to Simon Bolivar the liberator, in the National Pantheon, or instead to build a glass pyramid for him. Millions weep for him, in red mourning garb, in a kind of collective hysteria.
During his long mandate of 14 years, Chavez gradually converted to the Taliban-like fundamentalism of the Castro brothers: class hatred, sometimes even racial hatred (he tried to have old portraits of Bolivar restored to make him look less white and more Afro), intimidation and threats to the opposition, verbal violence, the invitation to the middle classes to emigrate. Chavez polarized Venezuela and encouraged a deepening of the hatred between classes. Nine million people voted for him and six million for the opposition; but to the Chavists this opposition was made up of “scum, wannabe Yankees, weaklings.”
It’s possible that the old, white, shamefully corrupt elite deserved a lesson from a traditionally marginalized sector. But does it make sense to expel the productive and corporate apparatus from the country? Nationalizing industry, farms, taking land away from productive landowners, scaring off all those who are, indiscriminately and without nuances, called “the rich” (when they are people who have simply built up capital by dint of hard work and good ideas) — is this advisable for a country? Perhaps Marxist theory says yes, but as time goes by, does this work? Are the poor necessarily more good, more ethical, more deserving of all favors, and should the rich, the merchants, be expelled from the temple of the nation?
It is very appealing — and in Europe this is celebrated — not to be ruled by the crass incompetence of the yuppies from the World Bank, ridiculous in their cynical call for austericide. But nor is the Chavez economic recipe very successful. Let’s see: the official exchange rate is six bolivars to the dollar, but on the street a dollar costs 18. Eighty percent of goods are imported, including food, and it’s far easier to find whisky or caviar than eggs and milk. Oil production went from 3.5 million barrels a year, with 32,000 workers, to 2.4 million, with 105,000 state workers. After an unprecedented oil bonanza, revenue from oil rose — despite the decrease in production — from $14 billion to $60 billion a year.
But despite these astronomical sums, Venezuela’s external debt is 10 times bigger today than 10 years ago and the fiscal deficit exceeds 20 percent. During his years in government Chavez received, from oil alone, more than $500 billion: this was enough for him to carry out projects in his country, and to finance like-minded candidates and movements abroad. To some, this was internationalist generosity; to others, populist squandering. Of course, he also reduced extreme poverty, inequality, child mortality and unemployment. The figures corroborate this. But it’s one thing to reduce poverty by offering work and education, and another to do so by giving things away.
Today Chavez is being deified by his Venezuelan and international supporters as a new liberator of the Americas. In reality, there is a far more grim side to his figure, and after the euphoric paradox of the mourning period will come the backlash of reality. There will be new elections, which Maduro will probably win. But the model of an oil caudillo cannot be exported to the rest of Latin America. It’s not possible; and if it were, it would not be advisable.
Hector Abad is a Colombian novelist and journalist. His award-winning 2006 book “Oblivion, A Memoir” recounts his father’s fight for social justice and death at the hands of paramilitary forces in Medellin in 1987.