Chavez Rest in Peace, Says Africa: The Death of President Hugo Chavez (below) on 5 March, after a Long Battle with Cancer, Sparkea a Wave of Mourning, Not Just across Latin America but Africa as Well. Charles Hayward Explores His Significance for Africans

Article excerpt

When President Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was a uniquely stratified society. The country was run by a white oligarchy, and the vast majority of the country's wealth lay in the hands of a tiny minority. Chavez, on the other hand, was voted in by the disenfranchised poor and a section of the disenchanted white middle class, whose standard of living had decreased over the previous decade.

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Of African, Amerindian and Spanish ancestry, Chavez's enduring popularity was in part due to his racial origins. The mestizo--or mixed people of black, Indian and white background, comprising 67% of the population--saw him as a fit representative of their cause, and his ability to meet their needs saw him voted in four times.

Populist social programmes were central to his success. These included slum missions that provided free healthcare and education, together with subsidised food and clothes. He widened the constitution to bring in protections for indigenous people and women.

The brand of "21st century socialism" he espoused--following on from "Bolivarianism", which combined elements of capitalism and socialism--was never precisely defined, beyond it being about a commitment to liberty, equality, social justice and solidarity, but it aimed to empower the masses through "participatory democracy". Communal Councils and Bolivarian Circles were intended to give the people input into decision-making and policy-making at the grassroots level.

The funding for Chavez's programme came from Venezuela's huge oil wealth, following on from his "re-nationalisation" of the oil industry under the state-run oil company, PDVSA. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and oil prices jumped 660% between 1998 and 2008.

His African roots informed his vision and international policy on many levels. "One of the greatest motherlands of all is no doubt Africa," Chavez said in 2005. "Every day we are much more aware of the roots we have."

He sought to promote policies in OPEC that supported development in less oil-endowed countries. He had begun to promote South-South co-operation through involvement in the Africa-South America Summits, a newly developing partnership aimed at advancing common interests. …