Within hours of the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez last week, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued what is arguably the most insensitive statement ever released by one democratically-elected leader about the death of another. The core of the statement consisted of the following proverbial kick-in-the-teeth to the still-warm corpse of the Venezuelan president: “At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” In short, Harper arrogantly bid good riddance to Chávez, not on behalf of Canada, but on behalf of the Venezuelan people. The prime minister’s comments stood in stark contrast to the ones he made when Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died in 2010, illustrating how Harper’s position is motivated more by ideology than any concern for democracy, freedom and human rights.
Following the death of Nigeria’s President Yar’Adua, Harper lauded him for his democratic achievements despite the fact that he had reached office through fraudulent elections and governed a country notorious for its repression and corruption. Harper’s statement on the death of Yar’Adua noted, “The past ten years of democratic governance have demonstrated the strength of Nigerians … and Canada mourns with Nigerians his passing.”
The common denominator between Venezuela and Nigeria is oil. Both countries are major oil producers, but that is where the economic similarities between the two nations end. Nigeria has welcomed foreign investment in its oil industry and other sectors in accordance with neoliberal reforms intended to integrate the country into the global capitalist economy. Venezuela, on the other hand, has challenged the free trade model worshipped by Harper by implementing socialist policies that ensure Venezuela’s oil wealth—and economy in general—serves the needs of the Venezuelan people rather than multinational corporations and the economies of wealthy nations.
Harper praised Nigerian democracy even though Yar’Adua prevailed in elections in 2007 that observers from the European Union called the worst they had ever seen anywhere in the world due to rampant vote rigging and violence. But this was nothing new for Nigeria; on those rare occasions when elections have been permitted, they have been fraught with fraud and other gross irregularities. Furthermore, Canada assisted Nigeria in organizing the 2007 elections. It had also assisted with the previous election four years earlier when former military dictator General Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected president in yet another contest widely deemed to be fraudulent. Obasanjo’s years of rule were marked by arbitrary executions and rampant corruption that included the Nigerian president issuing $2.2 billion in illegal oil contracts to foreign companies. Yar’Adua was Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor as leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
In sharp contrast, Jimmy Carter, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his democracy promotion work with the Carter Center and who has monitored elections around the world, has nothing but praise for Venezuela’s electoral system. In reference to the South American nation’s most recent presidential election in October 2012, Carter stated, “There’s no doubt in our mind, having monitored very closely the election process, that [Chávez] won fairly and squarely. As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
The arrogance in Harper’s suggestion that Chávez’s death will provide an opportunity for the Venezuelan people to build a democratic future is also laid bare by the opinion of the Venezuelan people themselves. According to a region-wide survey conducted in 2010 by Latin America’s largest polling firm, the Chile-based Latinobarometro, 84 percent of Venezuelans viewed their democracy positively, by far the highest percentage of any country in Latin America. This reality was highlighted by the 81 percent turnout in the last election, which puts electoral participation in the United States and Canada to shame.
But democracy extends beyond the mere holding of elections, it also relates to the well-being of a nation’s citizens. Under Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s neoliberal policies helped the country achieve impressive levels of economic growth; however, the wealth generated from this growth did not benefit most of the population. During Yar’Adua’s time in office more than 60 percent of Nigerians lived in poverty—on less than $1 a day—while inequality increased during those years. Furthermore, an underfunded healthcare system has struggled to cope with a health crisis in which more than three million Nigerians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The number of people dying from AIDS has resulted in life expectancy declining to only 52 years.
This reality is not surprising when neoliberal policies that provide favorable investment conditions resulted in much of the oil wealth leaving the country in the pockets of foreign companies while what remained funded the extravagant lifestyles of the country’s ruling elites. As Nigerian analyst Emeka Duruigbo notes, “Oil development has arguably deepened the poverty of many Nigerians. It has bankrolled a series of corrupt and authoritarian governments; … it has supported and abetted egregious human rights abuses. These are not merely regrettable offshoots or periodic abuses of the development process; they are the development process.”
Nevertheless, it is a neoliberal “development process” that assures opportunities for Canadian corporations seeking to invest in Nigeria. According to Export Development Canada (EDC), “Canada has a well established and growing trade relationship with Nigeria. … We see good export and investment opportunities across a wide range of sectors that match Canadian capabilities. … we provide support to Canadian companies planning on or currently doing business in the Nigeria.” Clearly, the role of EDC does not emphasize “development” for Nigerians but rather “investment opportunities” for Canadian corporations; opportunities that have resulted from the neoliberal economic model so revered by Harper.
In contrast, the Chávez government in Venezuela challenged neoliberalism by nationalizing the oil sector to ensure that most of the oil wealth remained in the country to benefit the Venezuelan people. As a result, EDC has a very different view of Venezuela’s potential for Canadian investors, noting that “ongoing nationalizations have increased the risk of doing business in Venezuela. Accordingly, there has been a sharp decline in exporter and investor interest in this Andean market.” Harper’s perception of democracy, freedom and human rights appears to closely correlate with EDC’s views on which countries provide the most favorable investment conditions for Canadian corporations.
As inconvenient as it may be for Harper, the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans were supportive of the Chávez government and its socialist project. This is not surprising given the dramatic improvements experienced by much of the population over the past decade. The provision of high-quality free healthcare to all citizens and subsidized food to the poor has resulted in average caloric intake increasing by 50 percent and infant malnutrition decreasing by 74 percent. According to the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “We analyze hunger statistics all over the world. There are 800 million people in the world who suffer from hunger, 49 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not one of them is Venezuelan.”
The Chávez government has also made education, including university, free to Venezuelans. The result, according to UNESCO, is that Venezuela has become an “illiteracy-free” nation and post-secondary enrolments have doubled over the past decade. Meanwhile, in accordance with Venezuela’s new constitution, more than 100,000 poor housewives receive 80 percent of the national minimum wage in recognition that their work in the home raising children contributes to the social well-being of the nation. Perhaps the government’s most impressive achievement is the astounding decline in the number of Venezuelans living in poverty, from 55 percent of the population when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to 18 percent in 2011. Furthermore, Venezuela surpassed Chile and Costa Rica in 2008 to become the “most equal” nation in Latin America in terms of wealth distribution. These achievements have resulted from state-funded projects, called “missions,” that are devised, implemented and evaluated at the community level by more than 16,000 communal councils in what constitutes an impressive example of participatory democracy that extends far beyond voting.
Despite these realities it is democracy in Nigeria that Harper celebrates. But this is not surprising; after all, the prime minister has long been a shill for corporate capitalism. Therefore, his views on democracy and freedom have little to do with the realities experienced by the people of Venezuela and Nigeria and more to do with a vision of a “democracy” that is dominated by pro-capitalist elites in order to ensure “freedom” for foreign investors to exploit cheap labor and natural resources throughout the global South.
Chávez is revered by a majority of Venezuelans because he dared to challenge the neoliberal ideology promoted by Harper and others of his ilk and in doing so he actually followed through on campaign promises to ensure that the country’s oil wealth primarily benefitted the Venezuelan people. His anti-imperialist rhetoric may have been controversial in the eyes of many North Americans, but there is no question that Chávez cared deeply about the well-being of the people who elected him to office. Sadly, the insensitivity and arrogance exhibited by Harper following the death of Chávez reflects poorly on all Canadians, many of who believe that it is the people of Venezuela who should be the judge of their own democracy and not some middle-aged white male millionaire ruler in the global North.
This article previously appeared in The Media Co-op