Wed March 6, 2013
Belmont Minister Recalls ‘Complex’ Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez’s death after a long bout with cancer is being mourned by multitudes of people around the world. But there are many others who will not miss the fiery, populist leader. Chavez’s policies and views were controversial and divided the country between those who viewed him as a social reformer, and those who viewed him as an autocrat. A Belmont pastor who knew him well said, above all else, Chavez was complex.
In a documentary Chavez described his grandmother’s dream that a Chavez would rise to challenge the country’s oligarchy. Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was elected four times as president of Venezuela in what the Carter Center in Atlanta described as the most “pristine elections” they observed among 92 countries.
But many middle class and wealthy Venezuelans protested his leadership as autocratic.
“Chavez has a history of sometimes, in these triumphant discourses, to reach out, and then pull back,” said one man was interviewed by Al Jazeera after the country’s most recent election.
And some well-to-do Venezuelans voted with their feet — leaving the oil-rich country in droves, and settling in Miami and elsewhere in the U.S. in recent years.
Rev. Mike Clark, of the United Methodist Church of Belmont, said it’s not surprising that this leader of what he called his Bolivarian revolution, who was so despised by many, was elected by so many more of his countrymen and women — mainly slum dwellers.
“I think he was the first president in Venezuelan history — and I think everyone would agree with this, whether they loved him or hated him — who took seriously the situation of the poor majority,” Clark said. “And he not only took it seriously ideologically, or in a political way, but because of the resources Venezuela has, mainly oil, if you were serious about redirecting the wealth of the country, you could accomplish amazing things.”
Clark traveled to Caracas to observe first-hand what he calls the country’s experiment in social justice, and he met with Chavez on several occasions.
“So today, for example, the millennial goals of the United Nations have only been met by one nation in the world, and that’s Venezuela,” he said. “And they’re three years ahead of schedule. Illiteracy was eliminated there seven or eight years ago. UNESCO said it was an amazing achievment. Every person in the country now has access to medical care, whereas once, they did not. And that medical care is free.”
Clark also appeared with Chavez in one his regular segments on Venezuelan television. Clark contends that Chavez’s engagement with the poor extended beyond Venezuela’s borders. Many in Massachusetts know the name Hugo Chavez only from mentions by former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy II in Citizens Energy TV commercials.
But the question many ask is: Was Chavez’ oil largesse on behalf of working class Americans citizens public relations or altruism?
“Both,” Clark said.
Chavez used propaganda to advance his policies and his presidency.
“When 2 million people are helped, as 2 million people in Massachusetts have been helped by that program, and not one other oil company in the world has put one drop of oil in poor people’s houses, in homeless shelters, in soup kitchens — it’s more than just PR,” Clark said.
Clark said that even without Chavez, the policies he championed on behalf of slum dwellers in Venezuela and oil recipients in the U.S. would be hard to take away.
Clark also concludes that there are stark class, racial and ethnic divides in Venezuela, and that it will be a matter of days, months or years to see how that impacts the country in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez’s presidency.