Who will take Chavez’s place?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the legacy of Hugo Chavez for his contradictions, writes author.

Inside Story Americas - Hugo Chavez''s economic legacy
Chavez's authoritarianism and human rights violations against journalists and dissenters made it impossible for good and moral onlookers to support him [AP]

It is a pity that officials in Venezuela have backed off their decision to preserve the revolutionary President Hugo Chavez’s body for a permanent display. His very visage meant something to his people.   

When they looked at him, they saw a living victory for the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples of Venezuela and the region as a whole. A descendant of African, indigenous and Spanish mixed-ancestry, Chavez annoyed his critics by highlighting how Euro-American supremacy meant that lighter skinned-people got the power and darker-skinned people got the poverty. 

But there is another face that is also not out in public view: who will take Chavez’s place in representing the rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples? 

While indeed Chavez’s mixed-race appearance symbolised possibilities of social mobility for millions of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, Chavez did more than symbolise resilience. He embodied resistance.   

Chavez’s anti-imperial rhetoric was more than just words for indigenous and Afro-descendant activists struggling for land rights in the region, and beyond. According to Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous woman and former chairperson for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, Chavez was one of few leaders around the world to support the acknowledgement of “indigenous peoples”, rather than simply “people”. This is important because the “s” acknowledges indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination

But Chavez’s shoes need to be filled soon to keep indigenous and Afro-descendant human rights on national and international political agendas, particularly in Latin America. The region of Latin America and the Caribbean is considered by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), as “the most unequal region of the world”. Sharing the face of poverty are indigenous peoples and people of African descent, known as Afro-descendants. Both communities are disproportionately poor

Afro-descendants, according to the IADB, account for 33 percent of Latin American and Caribbean populations and yet, roughly 50 percent live in poverty. It is the same for the indigenous people in the region. Indigenous populations comprise 10 percent of the population and number roughly 50 million, but they are more than twice as likely as mestizos to be poor in Latin America.  

According to a report from the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) – a leading human rights organisation working to secure rights for ethnic, religious and indigenous people around the world – these discrepancies are even more visible in rural areas. 

Poverty rates are simply one illustration of the region’s inequality. The lasting legacy of colonial relations that exalt whiteness and denigrate Indian and black bodies is alive and well in Latin America. In a world where whiteness, marked by both skin colour, dress, Spanish language, profit-making and private property rights reign as the markers by which non-whites are judged and deemed deserving of development benefits, indigenous and Afro-descendant poverty is stained by struggles for land rights.   

On the Atlantic coast of Honduras, the Miskito and Garifuna, two of the nation’s indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities respectively, struggle to maintain access to control land. Living in collectively held territories and communal lands, these subsistence farmers and fishing communities mix local food production with wage labour to eke out a living in the rural forests of the Honduran North Coast. These livelihood practices are at times supplemented by remittances from the capital and abroad, but for most, Miskito and Garifuna peoples depend on sustained access to land and natural resources in the coastal forested zones where many communities reside. 

These livelihood practices are supposed to be protected under International Law and the Honduran Constitution. However, in recent years, Honduran land policy facilitates the dissolution of collective indigenous territories and displacement from communal land rights. 

For example, Honduras is the recipient of the World Bank-funded Land Administration Program, known as PATH. A key component of this project is the Property Law

Hatched in 2004, the law turns back years of indigenous debate and struggles with the state to establish and implement a system of ethnic communal land rights where only members of indigenous communities may own and occupy community lands. Under this collective model, land sales to outsiders are prohibited. 

Yet today, under the Property Law, communal lands can legally be sold and/or rented by non-indigenous peoples. The state justifies the breakup of ethnic community lands as a way to open lands for various forms of agribusiness and tourism development predominantly practiced by non-indigenous peoples. 

For the post-coup government in Honduras, private individual, not collective, property titles are the state’s preferred model for secure property rights. Indeed, private individual property arrangements facilitate foreign direct investment in land for tourism development. This means indigenous subsistence production cannot compete with foreign and non-indigenous competitors. More than income, in Honduras, Miskito and Garifuna poverty is illustrated in dwindling control over ancestral lands.  

So with Chavez gone, who will now keep poverty on the agenda in Latin America? As a new biography written by Rory Carroll and titled Comandante, Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, promises to illustrate Chavez as a political leader was morally complicated

Indeed, he was responsible for redistributing immense amounts of oil wealth not simply for the benefit of poor Venezuelans, but also gifted oil to poor Americans. At the same time, his authoritarianism and human rights violations against journalists and dissenters made it impossible for good and moral onlookers to support him, regardless of our empathy for the poor.  

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Chavez for his contradictions. In a similar way, many on the left would prefer US President Obama to do more to address poverty and mass incarceration of African American men, and yet many still support him in spite of these contradictions.

Hugo Chavez is dead. Now, who has the courage to take his place? 

Sharlene Mollett is an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.