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Harry Sterling: Hugo Chavez stayed true to his revolution

You either loved him or hated him. You either respected him or held him in utter contempt.
You either loved him or hated him. You either respected him or held him in utter contempt.

Clearly, Hugo Chavez was a polarizing leader, whether in his homeland of Venezuela or abroad where his foreign policies could infuriate some governments, particularly that of the United States. Now Venezuela’s controversial leader is dead of cancer at 58, only days after returning to Caracas from his latest hospital stay in Havana.

Few contemporary political leaders could generate such strong feelings as Chavez managed to do since coming to power in 1999 and embarking his country on what he called his Bolivarian Revolution.

To the extreme displeasure of his country’s privileged elite, it was a true revolution in which the former paratrooper took on the cause of Venezuela’s poverty-stricken, promising them a better life.

Thanks to Venezuela’s oil wealth, Chavez was able to embark upon a journey in which he tried to transform Venezuelan society. His task was made easier by his ideological affinity for the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro.

In exchange for Venezuelan petroleum, Castro sent 30,000 teachers, medical personnel and other experts to Venezuela.

Such personnel enabled Chavez to provide education and medical assistance for millions of Venezuelans who had never received an education or had no access to medical aid.

To further help the poor, Chavez established food outlets providing goods at lower prices. (Critics say the outlets often had major shortages and were inefficient and costly.)

Not surprisingly, opposition to Chavez increased among many in Venezuela. His opponents included the unions running the country’s national petroleum company as their personal fiefdom. Pampered union leaders, backed by much of the private sector and the privately owned newspapers, TV networks and radio stations, went on strike in 2002. But Chavez broke their strike, resulting in massive dismissal of petroleum managers and workers and opening up positions for his supporters.

Antipathy toward Chavez’s rule in Venezuela was such that the U.S. administration was a little too quick in recognizing an aborted coup in 2002, an action that only aggravated already poor relations between the two countries.

Not only did Chavez develop extremely close relations with Cuba, he also made no secret of his anti-American views, claiming U.S. governments were constantly undermining progressive changes in Latin America and the Caribbean. He said Washington did this to advance its own national interests, especially its opposition toward socialist movements such as Venezuela’s, which Chavez called socialism for the 21st century.

To reduce American influence in Latin America, in 2006 Chavez helped create the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a socialist free-trade organization joined by Castro and Bolivian leader Evo Morales. Chavez reportedly has provided the organization with more than $33 billion since 2006 and developed close relations with Nicaragua, Ecuador and Argentina, where Chavez has bought large amounts of Argentine bonds during that country’s financial difficulties. In his efforts to promote greater Latin American integration, Chavez was finally admitted to the Mercosur group of countries.

His government played a major role in efforts to challenge the value of Canada’s and the United States’ membership in the Organization of American States.

Last month, the efforts of Chavez to promote greater integration in the Americas paid off when the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries met for its second summit in Santiago, Chile, one year after its founding in Caracas in 2011.

All 33 presidents or heads of state from the region attended, except Chavez, who once more was undergoing treatment in Havana for the cancer first discovered in June 2011.

CELAC deliberately excludes the U.S. and Canada, a first for a hemispheric organization with highly important symbolic importance.

In effect, all the efforts of past American governments to isolate and undermine the Cuban Revolution have now failed. But for some, the question still to be answered is what will happen to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela with its creator no longer at the helm?

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in both Venezuela and Cuba.