In April 2002, hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest against the Chávez government, mostly members of the growing middle class. The marchers advanced towards the palace, where they encountered government supporters, and a clash ensued. Journalist Phil Gunson wrote, "Shooting broke out on all sides. A score of civilians died and more than 150 suffered gunshot wounds. The military high command called for Chávez to resign, and at 3:20 the next morning they announced he had agreed to do so. The presidency was assumed by a business leader, Pedro Carmona, but his government collapsed in less than forty-eight hours and Chávez returned to power." Chávez's popularity due his policies had quashed a counterrevolution. This popularity has helped to repeatedly propel him to election victories, even his latest one, garnering 55% of the vote despite rising crime, persistent scarcities of basic food items, double-digit inflation and unpopular foreign aid programs. His reelection was a testament to the devotion of Venezuela's impoverished to the concrete material improvements in their lives under his leadership policies.
This was not the first time Venezuela has shown generosity to America's poor. After Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast, Citgo donated a million dollars to disaster relief and President Hugo Chávez offered to send food, water, fuel, and other humanitarian assistance. The U.S. refused his offer however. That same year, in response to a call by 12 U.S. Senators for oil companies and oil producing nations to donate heating oil to help ease the pain of high prices caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Venezuela rose to the occasion once again. Despite criticism from the American government, the program has continued each winter since. And heating oil is not the only humanitarian assistance promoted by the Chávez government. Over the last decade, Venezuelan doctors, many of them trained in Cuba, have provided free medical care, including surgeries all around Latin America. In New York's South Bronx, Citgo has donated millions to support community building organizations, including natural food co-ops, environmentally sound recycling programs, and youth groups.
As the U.S. continues to export warfare and empire on the backs of its increasingly-struggling citizenry, and Venezuela exports doctors and free heating, long-held and infrequently-examined assumptions about U.S. benevolence were questioned. Chávez pointed out this contradiction, and in so doing was able to galvanized anti-American, anti-imperialist sentiment across the hemisphere. He roused Latin American opposition to the so-called Washington Consensus that developing nations should open their markets to free trade and foreign investors. He called President George W. Bush a terrorist for invading Afghanistan and the "devil" during a United Nations speech. He has forged close links with other socialist leaders in the hemisphere, including Bolivia's Evo Morales, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Chávez's relations, however, with the United States became less tense with the election of President Obama.
As the U.S. questions democracy in Venezuela, and around the world, there are those in the U.S. that question the state of democracy at home. While his critics point to his leadership style, saying it is reminiscent of Latin American caudillo, or military dictator, they forget he was democratically elected four times, and won several nationwide referendums. He closed TV and radio stations critical of him, armed a civilian militia and brought the bureaucracy under close control, detractors said. They argue he maintained his link to the poor partly through his weekly "Alo Presidente" television show, during which he performed much like a televangelist spreading the gospel of his revolution. But there are those that say U.S. Patriot Act and the use of military drones to kill American citizens is undemocratic. That the growth of the Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial complex, Big Pharma, Monsanto, Corporatocracy, all suggest the democracy has taken a back seat in America. But when all is said in done, Chávez's record will speaks for itself. It was a record that has style and substance. It was a record that transformed a nation.
Who was Hugo Chávez, you ask, he was an Afro-Venezuelan who made a real difference in his country; unlike the Afro-American leader of the U.S., who has style but no substance, he had both. And while one leader has helped lead millions out of poverty, the others heads a nation that is leading millions into poverty.