By Lawrence Powell, Guest Columnist
VENEZUELA'S MOST popular modern president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, who first announced he had cancer of the pelvic region back in 2011 and has since undergone four operations, passed away Tuesday in a Caracas hospital. He had been receiving intensive recuperative care after the fourth operation last December. This most recent operation was complicated by a serious lung infection, as a result of a compromised immune system from the repeated chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The damaged lung left him breathing through a tube, and unable to speak, which had fueled speculation as to whether, and for how long, he could continue to lead.
Chávez will be remembered by Venezuelans, and by others inspired by his anti-colonial legacy of reforms on behalf of the poor, as a sort of Latin American 'David' who had the courage to stand up to an imperial Goliath. He has left behind an anti-imperialist legacy of strident defence of his nation's sovereignty, its resources, and its economic independence against any encroachments by foreign neocolonial powers like the United States and Europe. He has also left behind a rich legacy of domestic reforms and improvements within Venezuelan society.
Since being elected in 1998, he has wrestled control of, then applied, his country's indigenous oil wealth to reduce poverty levels by two-thirds (23.4 per cent in 1999 to 8.5 per cent in 2011), and has given millions of Venezuelans access to quality health care for the first time in their lives. Unemployment levels have decreased from 14.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent, and infant mortality has gone from 20 to 13 per 1,000 births.
He also implemented a comprehensive literacy policy, widening access to education and doubling university enrolments. And four times as many citizens are now eligible for public pension assistance in old age. Remarkably, Chávez was able to accomplish these social reforms while maintaining the economy's overall sustainability. The country's gross domestic product increased from $4,100 per Venezuelan in 1999, to $10,800, along with an increase in national oil exports from $14 to $60 billion over the same period.
In the popular imagination, Chávez is often associated with the day he joked in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly about George W. Bush - who was at the time in the midst of waging the Iraq War with its Abu Ghraib tortures, undemocratic suspensions of Americans' constitutional rights, and lies about non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' as an excuse for imperial invasion. "Yesterday, the devil came here," Chavez said, referring to Bush, "Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of." Chavez then made the sign of the cross, kissed his hand, and winked at his audience. Needless to say, the United States State Department was not amused
He is also remembered for the Citgo (a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company) winter heating oil programme, which provided heating oil to poor Americans free of charge. This further embarrassed a conservative Bush administration that for ideological reasons was unwilling to help supply oil to its own people to help them through difficult winters in US cities. And Chávez was a helping friend to neighbouring countries in the region, offering favourable PetroCaribe deals, and fostering non-imperial regional alliances like ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).
Likely impact on Jamaica
Among the various possible direct and indirect repercussions for Jamaica of Chavez's death, by far the most serious has to do with continuation of the PetroCaribe agreement. The agreement, which was set up with Venezuela in 2005, allows purchase of oil on preferential terms to Jamaica and other countries in the region, including Antigua, The Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, St Kitts, St Vincent, St. Lucia, and Suriname.
Jamaica will surely find herself in a delicate economic situation over the next few years, as International Monetary Fund debt resolution issues are being worked through. If Chávez's colleagues in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela continue this generous program without major interruptions or policy revisions, his death will have little immediate impact.
But if the desire of private oil corporations to recapture a larger stake in Venezuela's largely - nationalised petro wealth leads to a destabilisation campaign by the United States in conjunction with the Venezuelan opposition parties, and/or if a political shift manages to derail Chávez's Bolivarian policy agenda, including the PetroCaribe agreements, then this could spell economic trouble for Jamaica and other vulnerable countries in the region - given the continued heavy dependence of these economies on affordable availability of fossil fuels.
This suggests that the Jamaican government needs to have a plan in place to deal with the near-term, or longer-term, contingency of a withdrawal of PetroCaribe support, as well as plans for exploiting alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, gas and hydroelectric power as supplemental sources, in order to reduce dependence.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences (COMPASS) at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.