Venezuela’s ambassador to Britain Rocio del Valle Maneiro Gonzalez talks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about the legacy of Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013
HUGO CHAVEZ, who died three years ago today, is surely one of the outstanding statesmen of the century so far.
Not only did his Bolivarian revolution inspire the “pink tide” that swept the whole of Latin America, his influence and his message spread far beyond that continent.
But what is his legacy today? Venezuela’s ambassador to Britain Rocio del Valle Maneiro Gonzalez says to understand that we need to grasp what Chavez’s rise to power in 1998 meant.
“Before Chavez we were stuck with a two-party system, Democratic Action and the Social Christians [Copei], and the political class has failed Venezuela,” Maneiro says.
“When Chavez came to power 60 to 70 per cent of the population was in poverty, and of that 15 per cent were in extreme poverty — those people who have nothing, who eat food fit for dogs.
“That’s why Chavez’s message came across so strong: it was the first time people started to hear about social debt.”
“He said the people who had ruled our country were in debt to the Venezuelan people. They had money from all over the world, because we are an oil exporter, but there was such misery, so many were illiterate.
“That is why the Venezuelan revolution has won 19 out of 20 elections. Because of a message of social justice, of equality — and because of the facts, the ways the country has changed in education, in health, in housing.”
And is current President Nicolas Maduro continuing that mission? “Maduro’s first priority is the social missions. The number of houses, the number of students, it’s like this” — she makes a soaring gesture with her hand.
“It’s hard to describe. But when I was ambassador to China I was visiting home to see one of my sons and the building he lived in had a concierge. He was about 70 years old and he said to me: ‘Ambassador, I learned to read!’”
But literacy and housing drives cost money. And reinvesting Venezuela’s oil wealth in its people was Chavez’s solution.
“To take the money from the oil and sow it in social plans, so that it would grow,” Maneiro explains. “And in one area, one of these missions, we required help from outside.
“That was health. And Cuba, where they have an excellent health system, they came to help us. They sent thousands of doctors, and they created a mission called Inside the Neighbourhood where the Cuban doctors set up practices in the barrios.
“I remember Operation Miracle. Three million people across Latin America had problems with their eyes — not just cataracts, all sorts — and they operated. A Cuban programme helped by Venezuelan finances.”
Cuba was not Venezuela’s only ally. For nine years Maneiro was ambassador to China.
“I had the privilege of being in China just at the moment when you could see the power shifting internationally,” she smiles. “I went in 2004 and stayed until 2013.
“And the relationship with Venezuela was very special. It matched perfectly with Chavez’s international policy.”
Most people over here, I note, see that policy as primarily about challenging the power of the United States.
“I wouldn’t define it like that. Chavez was in the first place an integrationist, his policy was for regional integration of Latin America. Over 17 years you can see the fruits of that — we have Alba, Celac, Unasur, all vehicles for the continent’s integration.
“Of course Chavez wanted independence from the United States, always. He was a Venezuelan leader, if a very special and charismatic one.
“We have a historical memory. If you read about Simon Bolivar, look what regional unity meant to him. And that involved challenging the US. ‘The United States has been out here through God’s will to sow misery and pain in Latin America in the name of freedom.’ Bolivar said that in the 1820s!
“Chavez took this as a basis. The first thing was regional integration, and then globally he thought: We do not need one superpower. We have to go for multilateralism.”
So he welcomed China’s growing power?
“Of course. To balance power globally. He wanted a strong Europe, a strong China, a strong Latin America. Given those, why not a strong United States?
“A multitude of powers. When I was in China what was happening there fitted that vision perfectly.”
So Chavez backed China’s rise. Was China equally supportive of his revolution?
“Yes. Very supportive. They created a system of bilateral co-operation, with a high-level joint committee working out shared priorities.
“When I arrived in China in 2004 our trade volume was $700 million. When I left in 2013 it was $23 billion. It was very dynamic.”
The growing trade ended longstanding US monopolies on many manufactured goods available in the Venezuelan market. “Critics said: ‘You are exchanging one dependence for another.’ But Chavez replied: ‘If you want to be independent, you need to diversify your dependencies first!’”
As ambassador, Maneiro worked closely with Chavez and came to know him well.
“He was a workaholic,” she recalls. “He would phone me at one, two in the morning, and say: ‘Did I wake you?’ But then we would talk for hours.
“Chavez was absolutely, completely Venezuelan. We are very musical and he was like that. He didn’t have a good ear. I was always telling him: ‘Don’t sing!’
“But he loved to sing and he tried to do it well. He sang some songs from the plains, because he was from that region, but out of tune.”
Chavez’s love of music found national expression in El Sistema, the system of youth orchestras that were the brainchild of Jose Antonio Abreu as an escape from poverty for young people. On coming to power, Chavez embraced the system and invested in it; now countries as far away as Germany are imitating the model. Indeed, Venezuela under Chavez experienced a cultural renaissance, from music to cinema.
“I think this is one of the most beautiful contributions of Venezuela to the world,” she says.
Was his private persona different from his public image?
“Everybody’s is different. But he was almost the same person.
“I suppose when he was very angry, he never raised his voice. If he didn’t like something it got lower and lower — you had to lean in.
“When he saw a problem, immediately it was like a dissection. ‘OK, what is this problem? Let me see. This is this, that is that, this is that … right, OK, the solution is this’.”
Venezuela has a had a rocky ride since Chavez’s death, but is the enthusiasm for this revolution still there?
“We are facing problems, and the whole world knows that.
“We had an election and for the first time, we didn’t win. It’s a challenge but the enthusiasm is still there.
“Our people, they have memories, they know. They know what their lives were like before and what they are like now.
“The people Chavez gave hope to, and told them: ‘Listen, you are a person, this is your constitution, you can vote and you have rights.’
“These people, they are the revolution. Chavez planted the seed and it is up to us, the revolutionary government, to make it grow. If we fail, history will ask: Why?”
It’s a message that might apply to today’s Labour Party. But Ambassador Maneiro smilingly declines to be drawn on British politics. What’s clear is that while Chavez is sorely missed, the revolution he began is far from over.