By Ted Braun
In 1823 President James Monroe drafted a policy statement that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. In it he warned European colonial powers that any attempt to control or influence the destiny of nations in the Western Hemisphere would be considered as "the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States" and "as dangerous to our peace and safety." In short, they were to stay out of our nation's backyard.
During these same years, however, there was a countervailing movement going on in Latin America. Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan political and military leader, had a dream of uniting all South American, Central American, and Caribbean countries into a single, economically independent country, Estados Unidos de Latinoamerica (the United States of Latin America). He did manage to create a Gran Columbia, a federation including Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, but was not able to accomplish his dream of an EUL before he died.
This history is important to note because a Venezuelan political and military leader in the Bolivarian tradition, Hugo Chavez, died on March 5. During his 14-year presidency he focused on improving the life of the Venezuelan poor. Through social campaigns in the areas of public health (free universal health care), education (free through the university level), markets (access to state-subsidized food), housing (a chance for the poor living in shacks of cardboard and tin to move into homes of cinder blocks and cement), and employment (increasing the minimum wage and pensions) he was able to improve the standard of living of tens of millions of Venezuelans. He instituted a double approach that involved state institutions "from above" and communal councils "from below" that gave the poor a voice in the government and in the local management of social services. Through it all, like Simon Bolivar, he had a deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America.
Author Tariq Ali described Chavez' charismatic leadership: "He appeared as an indestructible ox, speaking for hours to his people in a warm, sonorous voice, a fiery eloquence that made it impossible to remain indifferent. His words had a stunning resonance. His speeches were littered with homilies, continental and national history, quotes from the 19th century revolutionary leader and president of Venezuela Simon Bolivar, pronouncements on the state of the world, and songs."
The Venezuelan elite, however, despised him, often describing him, a man of mixed ancestry (African, indigenous, and Spanish), as a "gorilla" or "monkey." His programs proved a continuing challenge both to the Venezuelan elite who had benefited from their close ties to the U.S. and to our nation's "Washington consensus" of neo-liberalism, corporate power and wealth, and increasing inequality. Many newspapers described Chavez as a "dictator" or "autocrat" and his programs in negative terms.
Chavez leaves behind a very changed society. The poor have been empowered and included in Venezuela's life in many new ways. It remains to be seen, however, whether that nation's social transformation will continue or be aborted.
The Latin American situation is quite different now that it was in 1823. Most of the nations there now have progressive, independent leadership. Nations in our "backyard" have moved beyond the confines of the Monroe Doctrine to become, in their own way, agents of their own history and determination.
Venezuela, especially, presents a particular challenge to us. What are we going to do about the poor in our own nation, the richest one on earth?