Those of us who lived and worked in Latin America were glued to the television sets and computer monitors, following an outcome of referendum in Venezuela, organized by the right wing opposition supported by the United States. Those of us who believe in progress, decency and equality, rejoiced. Hugo Chavez, President and reformist, survived again, was endorsed by 58% of Venezuelan voters who were lining up for hours in front of the polling stations all over their huge and diverse country.
For years, Mr. Chavez defended those who were defenseless, facing tremendous pressure from the opposition, surviving blackmail, lies, military coup backed by the US, strikes organized by the right wing trade unions and business elites. He never backed up from his goal - helping the great majority of miserably poor citizens of his oil rich nation.
Venezuela voted and the more than a half of her people sent clear message to their democratically elected President: "Stay!"
The vote itself was a proof of civic maturity and enormous courage. Who could ever forget elections in Nicaragua that followed murderous actions staged by the CIA-backed contras? There, Sandinista "lost", despite the support they were enjoying from the majority of Nicaraguan people who were exhausted, hoping that violence and terror by contras will stop if they vote Ortega out of power.
Mr. Chavez and his government survived every imaginable threat, refusing to yield to The Monroe Doctrine and to the danger of the "Chilean scenario". Like in early 1970's in Chile, powerful elite in Venezuela unleashed economic blackmail and tremendous propaganda campaign, accusing Mr. Chavez of dictatorial tendencies and spreading outright lies about his political and economic motives. They contaminated their nation with uncertainty, fear and economic chaos.
Two years ago, elites brought Venezuelan economy almost to its knees, then blamed Chavez for everything from declining GDP to increased violence on the streets of Caracas. Press and mass media mainly owned by the white right-wing businessmen, concentrated their efforts on defaming of the President and his programs designed to help poor (mainly black or indigenous).
During my last visit to Caracas I spoke to several journalists who complained about the same thing: "We support Chavez, but can't put it in writing, if we want to retain our jobs." Chavez let them bark, concentrating instead on how to pull his country out of crisis and educate, cure and feed the poor. He also traveled the world (as the President of OPEC), negotiating fair prices for oil and trying to convince poor nations to unite and defend their own interests against the designs of the handful of rich countries.
Why is Hugo Chavez so much hated by the elites? The answer is simple: He is not one of them. He is not white and he is not rich. He never belonged to the small and exclusive club of unimaginably corrupt political and economic hierarchy that was bleeding the nation for decades. He forced the rich and their companies (including the international ones) to pay taxes.
In the past, Venezuelan politicians and big business negotiated huge international loans, easily accessible because of country's oil reserves. Loans were intended for improvements of infrastructure, medical care and education, as well as for the social development. Most of the money got stolen; disappeared, left the country in the pockets of corrupt elites. Then Venezuelan poor and lower middle class were presented with the bill.
He came up with the plan to break latifundias and distribute (mainly unused) land among the landless and poor peasants. By then, elites realized that he means business, that his words were not just an empty rhetoric. In order to preserve their privileges, they united their forces against his government.
The US was a logical ally of those who dreamed about deposing Mr. Chavez. Washington disliked progressive President from the very beginning, accusing him of talking to the "enemies" (to Libyan and Iraqi leaders) disapproving of his choice of Mr. Castro of Cuba as his personal friend (Venezuela helps Cuba by providing cheap oil).
Attempts to help Venezuelan poor were also seen by the US as subversive and dangerous, threatening to spread all over Latin America and the rest of developing world. So were his statements that Venezuela doesn't need huge foreign investment; instead it needs solid and permanent (not speculative) investment that would help the country to develop and fight the poverty.
The United States and Venezuelan elites repeatedly tried and failed to unseat Mr. Chavez. He survived one coup attempt, elections, referendums and past hard economic times (presently, Venezuelan economy is growing rapidly). After the August 2004 referendum, there can be no doubt that he remains democratically elected and supported (by the majority) President of Venezuela.
That's wonderful and definitely a cause for celebration! But the hard question still remains: What will happen next and how can Mr. Chavez be helped by those who believe that he is one of the last hopes for genuine and progressive reforms in Latin America and entire developing world?
Opposition in Venezuela is tremendously powerful, well organized and united. It's ready to defend its privileges, its dominant position in the society, its luxury cars, villas, golf-courses and right to squeeze every penny from the poor majority. It still will be able to count on the support from the North and many Latin American countries (in fact on majority of them, especially those that treat their own indigenous and black citizens with contempt and arrogance); it still owns almost all large businesses, most of the land and almost all important television channels and daily and weekly newspapers. In the past, all efforts by progressive people of the world failed to prevent destruction of Nicaragua and Chile. It also failed to stop terrorist attacks against Cuba, not to speak about embargo. In order to survive and succeed, Venezuela will have to rely on much more than just a support of two or three forward-looking governments on its continent.
Every effort has to be made to support its leader and reforms. If Mr. Chavez fails, the greatest hope for social justice, decency and democracy for all may disappear from Latin America with easily imaginable and terrible consequences for the millions of dispossessed and desperate poor.
ANDRE VLTCHEK is American writer, political analyst and filmmaker, presently living in Southeast Asia. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org