When I said this post would be “the last post” on the matter, I meant posts written by myself. Alexander Mercouris’ was too good to pass up, so it is reprinted here:
Any discussion of Chavez must explain why he was (to his detractors) such a terrible man. He was a terrible man because he did a terrible thing. This terrible thing was to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to the majority of its people by funding ambitious health, education and social security programmes.
To understand why doing this was so terrible one must understand something about the historic situation not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America (Costa Rica being the exception). Briefly, political and social power in Latin America since before independence from Spain has been concentrated in a small group of wealthy families who conduct bitter and even violent political feuds with each other using labels such as “Liberal” and “Conservative” but who unite when faced by a challenge to their power. This oligarchy sustains itself through the support of a middle class that sees its social and economic interests as bound up with those of the oligarchy. Concepts of a wider social contract underpinned by shared patriotism and by a sense of social responsibility do not exist. The mass of the population are excluded and typecast as lazy, shiftless, dishonest and violent. This justifies denying them a share in the country’s economic profits, which supposedly neither belong to them or are deserved by them, and which makes any attempt to share these economic profits with them a theft from those to whom these profits supposedly actually belong. All this is underpinned by an ugly strain of racism with the middle class and the oligarchy priding themselves on their whiteness whilst often concealing their mixed origin whilst emphasising or exaggerating the colour of the poor.
The result is that governments in Latin America have historically failed to provide even the most basic services at even a remotely satisfactory level. The only institutions in Latin American that have historically been reasonably funded have been the very highest echelons of the state bureaucracy and the judiciary (which is usually recruited directly from the oligarchy) and the army and police whose main function is not to defend the nation from foreign aggression to keep the poor in order.
In such a system requiring the oligarchy and the middle class to pay taxes to fund say a good system of universal secondary education from which the poor might benefit is an idea so outrageous that it is guaranteed to provoke passionate and often violent anger and resistance. Americans, Europeans, East Asians and indeed Russians find all this very difficult to understand. As a Greek I am better able to understand it not only because it resembles the historic situation in my own society but because a section of my family emigrated to Argentina where they are today members of what was once the country’s oligarchy.
Not surprisingly in a Continent where basic education and health care for the bulk of the population was scarcely provided (though the means to do so was always there) economic development has been disappointing to say the least. However since this is a system that is deeply embedded and which is sustained by often extreme violence all previous attempts to change it have been largely unsuccessful with reformers likely to end up either in exile or dead. I am not going to discuss the role of the US in sustaining this system since it is so well known. I would say that I do think people who blame the US for Latin America’s problems overlook the many internal reasons why Latin American societies have historically been as dysfunctional as they are.