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Buenos Aires, Argentina - He's done it. Again. In the 14th election in 13 years, Hugo Chavez Frias -- the head of state Atlanticist right-wingers love to hate -- was reelected president fair and square, in absolutely transparent conditions, monitored by anyone from the UN and the EU to the Organisation of Americans States (OAS).
Two elections were at play here. One pitted Chavez against neoliberal right-winger reconverted democrat Henrique Capriles Radonski -- a lawyer representing the Venezuelan, Washington consensus-aligned comprador class. The other was progressive South American integration versus Big Brother's desire for a pliable client state.
Chavez won first of all because the Bolivarian project has the numbers. The Chavismo years -- for all its faults and unbridled cult of personality -- essentially recovered Venezuelan national sovereignty, redistributing wealth to the benefit of public services and the excluded, via social missions and a decent minimum wage. One may call it, like Chavez, "socialism for the 21st century." In Latin American terms, it is certainly a path towards a more equal society.
In the run-up to the election, Chavez made a point to position the figure of Guacaipuro -- an indigenous leader who commanded Teque and Caracas tribes against Spanish colonisation -- as a key Venezuelan symbol of resistance. "We are all Guacaipuro" was a resonant call -- with its emphasis on the country's roots in "aboriginal, indigenous and black resistance pushing the struggle of the oppressed."
No illiteracy for oil
The facts are stark. Venezuela holds what is now recognised as the largest oil reserves on the planet -- even larger than Saudi Arabia's. But until recently this was an energy Holy Grail run by the usual tiny, arrogant, rapacious elite, and where the masses had no possibility of decent education, decent housing or a decent salary.
The record of Chavismo is a story of how to progressively horizontalize a vertical society. Chavismo channels no less than 43 percent of the state budget to an array of social policies.
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Unemployment went down from over 20 percent to less than 7 percent. No less than 22 public universities were built in the past 10 years. The number of teachers went from 65,000 to 350,000. Illiteracy has been eradicated. There is an ongoing agrarian reform -- still a dream in most South American latitudes.
The ruling class obviously was not amused -- as it has not been amused in Brazil, Argentina or Bolivia for that matter (in Paraguay it even managed to organize a "constitutional coup" to depose a legitimate democratic government). In Venezuela, 10 years ago it also managed to concoct a coup -- with support from corporate media -- that lasted a pitiful three days. The masses said "No Pasaran."
Defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, by the way, is something like a born-again democrat; he was directly involved in the April 2002 coup and even had to spend some time in jail for it.
Venezuela has the best Gini coefficient -- meaning it's the least unequal country -- in the whole of Latin America. In its January 2012 report, the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (known by its Spanish acronym, Cepal) states that Venezuela and Ecuador, between 1996 and 2010, were the champions in reducing poverty across the Americas.
Meanwhile, Americans in the US might be amused to know that Gallup has rated Venezuela as the 5th "happiest nation in the world." Salsa, anyone?
No wonder while corporate media in the US, Western Europe and South America kept peddling stories of Venezuelans dreaming of exile and sipping martinis in Miami, the fact is scores of young Spaniards with no European future are coming to Venezuela to find a job [SP].
Chavez demonization in Western corporate media is pitifully cartoonish -- as in the recent push to proclaim his imminent death practically on an everyday basis. It has been hard to admit that his cancer was successfully treated by Cuban doctors.
The key reason for the Chavez demonization cottage industry is that he refuses to be aligned with Washington's geopolitical whims. He maintains very close, complex connections with China's leaders (and that includes providing China with one million barrels of oil a day in the near future); he supports Iran's right for a civilian nuclear program; he supported Gaddafi till the bitter end against what he saw as an illegal NATO war; he supports the Syrian government against what he identifies as Salafi-jihadist terrorists trying to depose it; and he has been a non-stop source of inspiration across Latin America -- from Bolivia and Ecuador to Nicaragua.
It's a toss-up whether Obama 2.0 -- not to mention a still remotely possible Romney administration -- will get real and try to "engage" Venezuela in conditions of mutual respect.
Chavismo meets Lulismo
Venezuela will grow 5 percent in 2012 -- way beyond Argentina (2 percent) and Brazil (1.5 percent). This is a partially socialized economy that is producing more jobs, more credit, more state investment -- and the result is steady economic growth.
Internally, the class struggle won't magically vanish. The poor will solidify their newfound, at least lower middle class status. As for the emergent middle class and the upper middle class, they yearn for yet more conspicuous consumption. The cancer at the heart of Chavismo is essentially inefficiency and corruption; that's the great internal battle to be won. As James Petras argues [SP], the key for the progressive success of Chavez's social policies is to seriously curb corruption in local politics and administration.
In terms of Latin America integration, this is also good news. Venezuela is now a member of Mercosur. Along with more economic integration, there will be further political integration via Unasur -- the South American union.
South America has been involved in an ample discussion about the emergence of an inevitable post-Washington consensus. Two different schools are at play; Chavismo, and what has been described as the Brasilia consensus.
Chile, Colombia and Uruguay may be seen as followers of the Brasilia consensus -- and even Peru under President Ollanta Humala. The Brasilia consensus is obviously a synonym of "Lulismo" -- after former, widely popular Brazilian President Lula, who Obama admitted was "the guy."
Chavismo meanwhile is popular in Bolivia and Ecuador. Then there are the hybrids -- such as Argentina and Paraguay before the coup against Fernando Lugo.
Yet essentially, what is in play are minor differences relative to the degree of socialization of the economy and the pursuit of an independent foreign policy. The basic model is shared by all -- with emphasis on economic growth, social equality, real democracy and progressive integration.
A more sober, less confrontational, less personalized Chavismo will do wonders for Latin American integration. But huge bumps on the road remain -- such as the coup in Paraguay, the coup in Honduras, the manipulation of ecological concerns to destabilize Bolivia, and Washington's perennial obsession in demonizing Chavez. And there's something the overwhelming majority in Latin America doesn't forget; the US Fourth Fleet -- resurrected under Dubya in 2008 -- is watching.