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Chavez legacy: a polarised society
From the time in 1992 when, as a lieutenant colonel paratrooper in the Venezuelan army, he attempted a coup on the Carlos Andres Peres government, to being constitutionally elected just seven years later, Hugo Chavez as a political figure could not be ignored. His fervent supporters, amongst those who were socially dispossessed and historically discriminated against, perceived him as their redeemer. The middle and upper classes despised him and his socialist policies with equal passion.
Undoubtedly, President Chavez made a difference to the lives of the underclass, including establishing a university to educate and facilitate their human development. Over the 14 years of his presidency, there was some change perhaps in the barrios (shanties of Caracas). However, at the same time, thousands of the business and investing classes took flight, exacerbating the historical social divisions.
While being democratically elected for three terms of office, the undemocratic tendencies of President Chavez could not be missed. Having failed in 2007 in a referendum to change the constitution to allow for an unlimited number of terms for a president to contest elections, he was successful at his next attempt in 2009, gaining 54 per cent of the vote. The former paratrooper was rough on his political opponents and media which did not support his policies and programmes. When sufficient time has passed, historians will analyse Chavismo.
Internationally, Chavez sought to take on the might of the United States with the establishment of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) in direct conflict with the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. He used his country’s vast petroleum resources liberally to achieve his objective. No fewer than 13 Caribbean countries and several in Latin America signed on to the Petro-Caribe deal and received large quantities of energy on long-term credit.
Caribbean countries are estimated to have received over US$1 billion in long-term credit for oil. However, that has contributed to the soaring debt of those countries. With Cuba, Chavez engaged in a special ideological relationship with former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Under the Patrick Manning administration, quite a close relationship developed between Venezuela and this country, including plans to exploit gas reserves in the shared Gulf of Paria. But as with the continuance of the decades-old conflict between T&T fishermen and the Guardia Nacional and the still unexplored potential for trade between the neighbours, those resources remain under-exploited and the disputes unresolved.
Succeeding T&T governments must share deeply in the responsibility for those failures between physically close countries with long social and cultural ties. In the immediate future, a major political drama is likely to be played out in Venezuela as the country seeks the direction and succession which Chavez appears not to have bequeathed to his country despite being mortally ill. He left behind him a polarised society.
Undoubtedly, Washington will get involved to secure what it sees as its own interests in Venezuela and avoid the emergence of another Chavez. T&T and the Caribbean, with vested interests of their own, need to keep a close eye on developments “down the Main.”
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