Monday 18 March 2013

Chávez: Venezuela's Voice

Chavez funeral casket: Source NDTV
On the 5th March Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, passed away after a 2 year battle with cancer. He was finally laid to rest over the weekend after a final memorial parade through Caracas.

The media-savvy President

No matter what you think of Chávez, I’m sure we can all agree that as a politician he was certainly unconventional. What other politician had a Sunday TV show that would start at 11am and only finish when he was done talking, which could take anywhere from four to eight hours. It was ‘real’ reality TV, with new policy announcements made off the cuff, insults towards western leaders and even once ordering a tank battalion to the boarder of Columbia during a time of tense relations between the two countries. All live on air, broadcasting to thousands of Venezuelans, many of whom saw it as compulsive weekend viewing. There were other oddities of Chavez. While undergoing chemotherapy treatment in Cuba he ran the government remotely using Twitter. This allowed him to stay in the news back home and his tweets regularly appeared on state television. Similarly, in 2011 when Venezuelans doubted the ability of the president to run in the 2012 election because of his fight with cancer, Chavez’s response was simple: star in an exercise video. “Healthy government, healthy body, healthy mind” were his exact words. I can’t even begin to imagine what would happen if David Cameron did any of these activities or the intense backlash there would be, but Chávez managed to get away with it and it cleverly showed him off as a man of the people.

Closer ‘ideological’ ties with China

You may be surprised to hear that the US is still Venezuela’s biggest trading partner, considering the soured relationship under the Chávez presidency. However this could change over the coming years as China’s economic and political influence grows throughout South America. Under Chávez, Venezuela ventured further afield from the US, its traditional trading partner, to China which it has become increasingly close to; they have even launched two satellites together. By 2010 they had signed 300 bilateral agreements including 80 major projects, including a contract to install 2000km of fibre optic cables and the construction of 1159km of railway infrastructure according to research by the University of Miami. For Chávez, the relationship was seen to be more ideologically significant than economically sound. These big projects were easily visible to the people of Venezuala and he could talk about how the Chinese were a growing international superpower that shared the same political views as himself. This resonated well with the people of Venezuela and aligned with his anti-west rhetoric.

The Future of Venezuela

Source: Guardian
There was no middle ground for opinions on Chávez – he was either a friend of the poor or a deranged dictator. The death of this autocratic leader leaves the future of the oil-rich nation in question. Currently Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s hand picked successor, has been sworn in as the interim president. He has pledged loyalty to Chávez and the opposition has already accused him of using the funeral attended by hundreds of thousands to start his campaign for presidency. He is also carrying on the anti-American rhetoric of Chávez by making accusations that the US might have caused Chávez’s fatal cancer. Much of Venezuela’s future depends on who is elected on the 14th April. If Maduro wins the election, he has said his first foreign trip will be to China. The opposition also see increasing trade links with China as a good thing. While Maduro may not be as charismatic as Chávez, the very fact that he’s associated with him puts him in a favourable position. My bet is on Maduro winning the election and carrying on Chávez’s legacy. But probably not with the Sunday TV.

Richard Sowler

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