By Wilberne Persaud, Financial Gleaner Columnist
Predictably, Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's passing was greeted with deep sorrow and mourning among supporters but popping firecrackers and jubilation by his detractors.
Chávez immersed himself in study of the lives of Simón Bolívar and Che Guevara, the two Latin American revolutionary thinkers, leaders and activists whose life work it appears he set out to continue in ways appropriate to the 21st century.
His vision, like that of Bolívar, included the notion of a united South America.
With such a guiding principle, he would eventually find common cause with Fidel Castro and, inevitably, encounter the wrath of the United States which he would soon denounce as engaged in new, modern-day imperialism.
Fitting the 21st century too, he had the immense oil wealth that lay beneath the surface of his beloved homeland to assist in funding his endeavours. But did he, in these efforts, squander the economic potential this bounty of oil wealth provided? Opinion on this is as extreme and divided as that on almost everything Chávez dared touch or comment upon.
So what did Chávez absorb from Simon Bolivar?
Although it appears nowhere in a few pages as did Simón Bolívar's September 6, 1815 letter from Jamaica, the thoughts and vision Bolívar expressed in it clearly presage what may logically be considered Chávez distillation of a complex vision of Latin America and the Caribbean in the 21st century.
The historical facts are that as president of Venezuela and Gran Colombia, Bolívar in 1826 perceived a grand vision for South America. He convened at the Congress of Panama, representatives of the new South American and Central American republics of the time.
The result of that gathering was a draft of the Treaty of Perpetual Union, League and Confederation initially signed by the delegates but later ratified only by Gran Colombia. Gran Columbia today comprises Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. Chávez most certainly absorbed in his thinking and vision, a design as grand as that of Simón Bolívar.
Chávez's axis of unity
In 2010, at the end of an hour-long interview with BBC Hardtalk's Stephen Sackur, which touched on his relationship with Cuba and the idea of an 'Axis of Unity', Chávez opined: "Fidel has spent his whole life on his (revolution) ... Whatever life I have left, I will dedicate to this peaceful democratic revolution in Venezuela."
Chávez's Axis of Unity at the time partly depended on leaders he listed as 'good friends' - those of China, Russia, Syria and Belarus, with Iran's President Ahmedinejad also included at his table. The Chávez problem for the 'West', therefore, was not merely Venezuela's oil reserve or his domestic agenda and how it might play out in the hemisphere, but also his ideas of a global order entirely in conflict with the current status quo.
As a charismatic leader unafraid to air his views, he was bound to incur the wrath of his opponents and of course, domestically, the elites whose power, wealth and influence his tenure abruptly curtailed.
On the other side of the coin, under Chávez the deleterious impact of poverty on health, nutrition and other concerns of the majority population in Venezuela has been significantly reduced.
The downside to this, coupled with material support to Cuba in the form of oil, subsidies associated with arrangements with Caribbean countries in PetroCaribe and other 'non-commercial' arrangements, it is argued, is truncated and/or delayed investment in the very oil exploration and refining apparatus upon which continuation of his policies depended.
His decisions to shut down private television stations, cause a sitting judge to be imprisoned, among other executive actions, earned him the title dictator among the world's influential news commentators.
Chávez was the quintessential man of complexity. Reporting on his death, The New York Times of March 5 included 548 comments with views as extreme and diametrically opposed as one might imagine.
A contributor from Switzerland puts it this way: "Chávez was a soldier, loud but well-read, who knew the grass-roots principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by heart."
Another, this one from Colorado, thought that: "Venezuela, like many Latin American nations, went through a long period during which political power was disconnected from popular consent. Chávez, whatever his flaws, seemed to have popular support in his country. As Americans, we should take the opportunity to be reminded of why so many of our southern neighbours distrust this country. A look at history would remind us that, far from being a friend of democracy or free markets in Latin America, the US has often propped up dictators, financed coups, and encouraged crony capitalism. The people of that region have not forgotten. That is a major reason why, in spite of all of Chávez's many errors, his nationalism and his populism kept him in power for so long."
Another from California wondered why "American leaders, like Judges Scalia and Roberts, the power guys of the Bush administration - Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their underlings [could not have] the dedication to real democracy or the concern for a national good beyond the good of the rich that Chávez had.
"The Republican Party tries to limit people from participating in democracy. Chávez tried to get more people into democracy. ... Our hearts go out to this man who fought so hard for the poor and what Jesus called 'the last', and yet did not abandon democracy. He made not just Latin Americans proud, but all who honour justice and fairness for the underdog victims of the class wars of the rich."
And the other side? From New York: "There is a God. A crook and enemy of the US of the highest order. I feel very sorry for the people of Venezuela, an absolutely beautiful country with tremendous potential, that they just didn't get it that they were taken for a ride these past 14 years. I wish them the best."
This is the nature of the man, the enduring problems of governance in an age of hitherto unimaginable material plenty amidst too-large pockets of grinding poverty and indiscriminate exploitation of the natural world that is our planet.
Wilberne Persaud, an economist, currently works on technology change and capital solutions for Caribbean SMEs. email@example.com