On Wednesday 30 April, a conference was held by Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute, to discuss the domestic, regional and international legacies of Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan president.
The first thing to say was that I was one of several people who arrived late at the talks because the UK capital was being disrupted that morning as a result of a strike by London Underground workers.
After a prolonged journey to the venue, I crept into the lecture theatre to hear Pedro A. Palma lambasting an economic legacy that he clearly thought was in tatters. Dr Palma, a Venezuelan economist who was a founding partner of consulting firm MetroEconómica, railed against “rampant inflation…an unsustainable situation”, saying that a “180-degree turn” was needed to try to save Venezuela. He referenced several slides showing different economic data and finished by outlining his fears that if action were not taken, there would be what he labelled “the materialisation of an exchange-rate tsunami”.
Someone who disagreed with Dr Palma was the next speaker, Arturo Sarmiento, the president of Telecaribe, a television station. He argued that 13 years of chavismo had led to political stability in Venezuela, and that despite his many critics, ‘El Comandante’ continued to win elections. He admitted that that opposition had been “castrated and suffocated” in many ways but was met by derisive cries from some members of the audience when he called the country’s electoral system “magnificent”. He said that the private sector must start to look at events in Venezuela in a different light and he ended with another statement that drew sarcastic chuckles from a few of those in the room. Mr Sarmiento believed that the arrival of Hugo Chavez into Venezuelan politics “helped avoid what could have been an even bigger social explosion than the French or Russian revolutions”.
Mr Sarmiento was well placed to comment on the media situation, and his response to a question about freedom of the press in Venezuela was firm. He said he had never experienced any censorship regarding any of his media ventures, going on to say that the press had a healthy role to play and that journalists were able to report freely in the country.
Julia Buxton, a professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy, had given her introductory speech while I was enjoying the gridlock in Piccadilly Circus but I got a taste of her position on the domestic legacy when she answered a question about the record high levels of crime. She agreed that Venezuela was “unique in its levels of criminal violence” but noted that, although crime had risen, poverty had fallen. Ms Buxton called for a “national dialogue and a consensus” on disarmament, lamenting the high numbers of light weapons and small arms in circuit and what she called “the glorification of violence”.
Next up were Dick Wilkinson, a former UK ambassador to Venezuela and to Cuba, and Alicia Castro, the Argentinian ambassador to the UK and former ambassador to Venezuela; they discussed Chávez’s regional legacy. For Mr Wilkinson, who met ‘El Comandante’ several times, the ‘participatory, not representative’ idea of democracy that Mr Chávez introduced was a refreshing method of engaging the masses. The Briton argued that there were four main groups into which you could fit Venezuela’s neighbours when it came to how they felt towards the former president:
1) Friends and supporters: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Caribbean nations
2) Who Chávez thought sold themselves to the USA: Colombia and Mexico
3) Suspicious towards his politics: Chile
4) Not hostile but viewed him with a certain condescension: Argentina and Brazil
Ms Castro spoke after Mr Wilkinson and she was in a combative mood. She denied that her country was condescending towards Caracas and opened her speech by saying “Venezuela is under an international media attack”. She thought that Chávez “gave Latin Americans hope of a better world”. There had been an enthusiasm across the region regarding the “challenge that Hugo Chávez presented to the neo-liberal agenda”, she stated and she went on to praise the “social revolution through democracy” that the socialist leader promoted.
In the questions that followed their discourses, the tension rose in the room as Ms Castro blithely swatted away some of the issues raised with short, snappy answers. She replied to a question from a Venezuelan about the issue of Caracas sheltering members of Colombia’s FARC rebels by asking how old the person posing the question was, intimating he was too young to know much about such matters. She was also robust in answering my question about how Hugo Chávez’s legacy could guide and shape the future of Mercosur, (which Venezuela joined in 2012), when set against the rising Pacific Alliance free-trade bloc. Ms Castro responded by focusing more on wanting to know why “British journalists” were fascinated by the issue of the Pacific Alliance, rather than the arguable politicisation of Mercosur and how the former Venezuelan leader’s policies would or would not guide Mercosur.
She closed with the above statement, a stance that provoked a lot of reaction online, with users both supporting her position and criticising her as a “true Peronist”.
(The third panel saw Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000-2008 and Diego Arria, a Venezuelan politician, discuss the international legacy of Hugo Chávez – this blog did not cover this final discussion)