President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died today, and although I make no claim to expertise on the man or his country, his career and accomplishments deserve appreciation by those of us on the broad Left who believe in the people's right to self-governance and to use democracy to better their lives.
One point that bears repeated emphasis: Despite grossly inaccurate language that will appear in the corporate media--and even by folks on this site who should know better, Hugo Chávez was neither a dictator nor a "strongman," he was the elected President of Venezuela. He was elected twice in elections that were free and fair, and no-one seriously doubts that he was the people's democratic choice. Over the years, Chávez submitted himself and his agenda to 14 national referendums, winning 13 by large margins, in polling deemed by Jimmy Carter to be “best in the world” out of the 92 elections that he has monitored.
Human rights in Venezuela, while not ideal, have actually improved under Pres. Chávez, and are better than in many Latin American countries, like Colombia and Guatemala, that are U.S. clients/puppets and whose records never get the same level of scrutiny. Even by the broad definition of political prisoner used by the Venezuelan opposition, there are at most 11 political prisoners in Venezuela. Using the same definition, I feel confident there are at least that many political prisoners right here in the good ole USA.
Above all else, President Hugo Chávez attempted to distribute the benefits of his nation's economic system more equitably and simultaneously to change that system to make it more just and egalitarian.
Among his accomplishments, between 1999 and the present are the following:
GDP per capita has more than doubled.
Infant mortality has been cut by 35%.
Extreme poverty has been cut by two-thirds.
Unemployment has been cut by half.
The literacy rate has nearly doubled, to 93%. Just one observation here: dictators and their ilk prefer their people to be ignorant, the better to cow them into submission, they do not sponsor big government programs to teach everyone how to read.
The poor have access to health care for the first time.
Venezuela's GINI Index, a widely used statistical measure of economic inequality, improved from 49.5 to 39, meaning that the country has become more egalitarian. By way of comparison, Colombia went from 58.7 to 55.9, and the U.S. went from 46.2 to 47.7.
Literally hundreds of state-owned, worker-run cooperatives have been formed.