Geopolitics

Hugo Chavez: Remembering A Singular Champion Of The Poor, And Of Himself

Hugo Chavez: Remembering A Singular Champion Of The Poor, And Of Himself
Marcelo Cantelmi

CARACAS - When Hugo Chávez took office for the first time in February 1999, Venezuela was on the edge of an economic abyss due to the ravages caused by almost 40 years of corruption from traditional political parties. The reach of poverty touched almost 80 percent of the population.

This ticking social time bomb was what ultimately convinced President Rafael Caldera, in 1994, to release the then military paratrooper Chávez, who had been imprisoned for leading a failed coup in 1992 against Caldera's predecessor.

The heat of the inequality in Venezuela was reaching a boiling point, and as Chávez would later recognize, his release from prison would help cool the social fury and ultimately avoid a full-blown Marxist alternative.

At the time, Chávez was making an effort to differentiate his politics from the Cuban model and reassure his belief in the right of private property and democratic institutions. Thus, Chávez became the spokesperson for those misplaced from the structure of economic distribution. He elevated this part of society for the first time, putting the disadvantaged at the center of the table, in the national spotlight.

And, even though his regime did not successfully resolve some of the fundamental issues of development for this sector of society, Chávez should be credited for bringing the poor out of the shadows. This stands at the heart of the mystique that surrounded him, and he personally took pride in his attempted coup and considered any opponents who would dare defy him as squalid imposters.

Hugo Chávez became the liberator of the poor people of Venezuela. He managed to create a nationalist structure that pulled the masses in closer, stirring up an extraordinary and extravagant mixture of religion and Marxism, adoration of Jesus Christ and Simón Bolívar, the mythical revolutionary liberator of the region from the Spanish Empire who helped lay the foundations of democratic ideology in much of Latin America.

The Chavista model was built on a sort of hyper-presidentialism of absolutist dimensions. Hyper-presidentialism occurs when elected presidents try to take the law into their hands and ignore constitutional limits. Thus Chávez managed to dominate Congress and attack the judiciary.

Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution ignored institutions and used perpetuation of extreme power as his key to success. He distributed replicas of Simón Bolivar’s sword to all dictators in the world, notably to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, Belarusia's Alexander Lukashenko and the repressive leaders of Iran's theocracy.

Social good, stiffling freedom

In between, the Venezeulan President set out to destroy television channels and written press outlets that dared to criticize him, turning freedom of speech into one of the victims of his model.

Naturally, this self-exalting model created enemies. Through an electoral system that exchanged votes for favors, he was legitimized again and again in the voting booths. Through his assistance programs for the poor, funded by Venezeula's notable oil wealth, he reduced poverty levels. Under Chávez, many had access for the first time to basic health care and education.

But his formula had a fatal economic flaw: a huge gap remained between growth that came from oil resources and the absence of other real and sustainable areas of development in the country. During this period, while the price of crude oil from Venezuela jumped from less than $20 to more than $100 a barrel, the sector was never industrialized. As a result, the country could not break the dependency on some 80% of imported goods in the country.

The great udder of Venezuelan Oil (PDVSA), supported the system, but began to show problems before the leader’s death, due to a lack of investment and long-term projects.

Faced with difficulties, Chávez always launched himself head-first into the fray. He not only changed the Constitution, ignoring a plebiscite against him, but won by a substaintial victory in his 2012 reelection.

His death leaves a huge void in Venezuela. Most pressing is the budget, which requires a strong currency devaluation to alleviate the weight of public debt. But the void is ultimately structural, because the country requires a major shift in its investment strategy.

But the most important void of all is the political legacy left by the passing of an absolute leadership that cannot be handed down. And while the battle now begins to take Chávez's place, success will depend on how well Venezuela's next leaders are able to reconcile the national contradictions that are stronger than ever.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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