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As millions of grief-stricken Venezuelans thronged the streets of Caracas after the untimely death of 58-year-old President Hugo Chavez, memories flooded back of Sept. 1970, when an equally flamboyant, controversial leader, Egypt's Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, suddenly died of a heart attack, aged only 52.
Nasser's death convulsed Egypt in grief. People felt their beloved father had died. Westerners couldn't understand Egypt's anguish. After all, Nasser lost two disastrous wars with the Israelis and one in Yemen. He made a mess of Egypt's economy, created a huge, sullen bureaucracy and secret police, and ruled by strength of personality rather than proper institutions.
In spite of these grave mistakes, Egyptians adored Nasser as a hero, the man who restored their dignity after millennia of foreign rule, an incorruptible leader who genuinely loved his people and cared deeply for them. Egypt's rich elite and the Western powers hated Nasser. But, in the end, his rickety Arab Socialism lifted the bottom stratum of society out of direst poverty and pushed Egypt into the 20th century.
Nasser was a Great Satan to the former European colonial powers, Britain and France, and to the British Empire's heir, the United States. After Nasser nationalized the British-run Suez Canal, Western media scourged Nasser as "Hitler on the Nile," a communist, and subversive.
A long line of other third world leaders was pilloried and vilified for nationalizing western-owned assets: Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran; Fidel Castro in Cuba; Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini; Libya's Gadaffi; and Iraq's Saddam Hussein for nationalizing their oil industries. Lt. Col. Chavez, fourth largest oil supplier to the US, was the latest, but certainly not the last.
Chavez was a "caudillo" of the old Latin American model: an oversized, boisterous, macho personality loved by women; a man enraptured by is own voice, impatience with the rules of democratic government, indifferent to the needs of commerce and industry. For journalists, what a delightful change after the EU's mind-numbing politicians.
Hate "Robin Hood" Chavez or love him, the fact remains, he managed to cut Venezuela's shocking poverty rate by half in the last ten years. He used Venezuela's oil bonanza to build schools, hospitals, clinics, low-cost housing, universities. His government seems to have been fairly honest by usual Latin American standards. He started no wars, sent no drones to kill people, avoided torture. Chavez won 13 of 14 elections, fair and square, according to foreign observers. Venezuela's voting system proved more reliable that Ohio's or Florida's.
But the feisty colonel could not resist relentlessly criticizing the United States and its allies, daring to denounce the Yankee "Empire" — which is not supposed to exist. Chavez voiced the endemic anti-Americanism found across Latin America that continues though the era of direct US military intervention and occupation seems to be over.
Washington, which saw Chavez as Fidel Castro II or another Che Guevara, launched an anti-Chavez propaganda war. To Washington big power/big money circles, Chavez was disobedient, insulting, and dangerous.
Claims are already being made his death was due to some high tech poison. This sounds unlikely –though, of course, there were the 600 plus attempts on Castro's life, and Yasser Arafat's likely 2004 murder.
Chavez founded a club of anti-American pipsqueaks, composed of Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Iran, and assorted foes of the US, further enraging Washington. Israel joined the anti-Chavez jihad, quietly backing his conservative opponent Enrique Capriles, who is of Jewish descent. Brazil gave Chavez quiet support.
It's hard to believe that "Chavismo" can long continue without the mercurial Chavez. His dour socialist successor, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver, has the charisma of a flat tire. But Venezuela's military so far appears to be behind Maduro. Elections will be held in a month. Many Venezuelans, fed up by soaring crime, collapsing infrastructure and bureaucracy, want change. But a sympathy vote for Chavez, particularly among women, may carry the day.
Yet it also seems clear that Chavez's grandly proclaimed Bolivarian Revolution to remake Latin America, uplift its impoverished people, break US domination of the continent and implant revolutionary socialism, has run its course. The loss of Chavez and the soon to exit Castro brothers means that Latin America is headed into calmer, more productive but certainly far less colorful and exciting times.