I’ll Miss Hugo

walden-bello-hugo-chavezI’ll miss Hugo. When I first was introduced to him in Porto Alegre in 2003, he greeted me, “Mi padre,” and said he learned a lot from me. I was dubious about this and thought he was simply buttering me up, like any two-bit politician. Then he started telling me what he learned from my books Development Debacle, Deglobalization, and Dark Victory. I was stupefied; the guy actually read my stuff!

About two years later, we met again, this time in Caracas. He told me he was seriously concerned about my safety since he had heard that the Philippines’ “Darth Vader Battalion” had marked me as a “counterrevolutionary” and targeted me for elimination. He invited me to cool off in Venezuela, telling me he would take me on a tour of the whole country. Thank you, I said, but he shouldn’t worry since I was dealing with a bunch of space cadets, albeit crazy ones. He asked me through the translator what a “space cadet” was. As I tried my best to explain, he said, “Ahh, un pendejo,” and roared with laughter.

In January 2006, during the World Social Forum in Caracas, he had several of us sit with him on stage and introduced us one by one. When it came to me, he declared grandiloquently that “in his veins runs the blood of Asian martyrs.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or crawl under my chair as he went on to construct an image of me that, wow, I wish were true!

The next day, at a forum of representatives of social movements, he asked me what I thought about what was happening in Venezuela. I don’t know what came over me, but I made use of the occasion to criticize his government for going back on its promise not to sign the Declaration of the World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting in Hong Kong in December 2005, which would have led to the third collapse of a WTO ministerial, one that would have been the last nail in the coffin of that anti-development mafia dominated by the North. “As a revolutionary, you can’t go back on your word,” I said. He was silent, but that was the last time I got invited to Caracas. The guy was great, but he could not take criticism.

I didn’t take that personally, though, since nobody could kick the United States in the ass like he did. He did and got away with what we all wanted to do, and he entertained us in the process with unparalleled humor, as when he ascended the rostrum at the United Nations General Assembly where U.S. President George W. Bush had spoken the day before and declared that he still smelled the sulfur that was the odor of el diablo.

His was a life that was larger than life, from his conversion to progressive views during the Caracas riots against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1989 to his failed coup in 1992 (when he declared on national television that his plans for the country had to be put on hold “for now”), and from his victory in the 1998 presidential election to his reinstatement by the urban poor when the right removed him in a coup in 2002. Along with Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Chavez put an end to the reign of neoliberal IMF policies that had impoverished the masses of Latin America and inaugurated a new order of resource nationalism and income redistribution that favored the poor and the marginalized. Perhaps nothing better captures the realities of the life and times of Hugo Chavez than the title of former Financial Times correspondent Hal Weitzman’s recent book, Latin Lessons: How South America Stopped Listening to the United States and Started Prospering.

Washington, of course, hated Chavez and pilloried him for his support of resistance movements throughout the world. What galled the Americans even more was that he won all his elections and referenda fair and square. Despite his anti-Yankee bluster, however, Chavez always made a distinction between the rulers and the people of the United States: during the oil price spike in 2007, he ordered the Venezuelan state-owned oil supplier CITGO to provide heating fuel at cut-rate prices to poor neighborhoods in New York, Boston, and other U.S. cities.

Goodbye, Comandante Hugo. You were a class act, one impossible to follow. Wherever you are right now, give ‘em hell.

FPIF columnist Walden Bello represents Akbayan, the Citizens’ Action Party, in the Philippine House of Representatives.