On Tuesday, March 5 Hugo Chavez, the fiery and controversial president of Venezuela died of cancer at the age of 58. Since his death there have been numerous articles and commentaries seeking to evaluate the life and legacy of this charismatic leader. As I have listened and read this reports, there seem to be two consistent themes that have emerged.
First, it is clear that Chavez was a champion of the poor in his country and around the world. As one CNN report said, “Chavez played a pivotal role in bringing the plight of Latin America’s impoverished people to the top of the political agenda.” In his 2009 documentary South of the Border, Oliver Stone walked with Chavez through the neighborhood where he had grown up and clearly portrayed a leader in touch with the poorest of the poor in that nation. These are the people mourning in Venezuela’s streets today. As a result he was not well regarded by the business community or the wealthy elites because he nationalized many businesses and redirected government funds to programs to help the poor. He even offered cut rate oil to the low income homeowners in the U.S. as a sign of his concern for those in need.
However the other thing Chavez was known for was his antipathy toward the United States particularly in its military and economic domination throughout the world. To that end Chavez befriended many countries, such as Iran and Syria, and leaders, such as Fidel Castro, who have been historic enemies of the United States. Though he came from a relatively poor and powerless country he did not seem cowed by the threats made by the U.S. and so was a persona non grata to many U.S. political leaders. While I am in no position to evaluate Chavez’s skill as a leader, one has to be impressed with the courage with which Chavez sought to buck U.S. control of Latin America. He even mentored several other leaders in the region to take similar stances and to turn their governments in a more socialistic direction.
However, my purpose is neither to praise nor criticize Hugo Chavez as a leader, but rather to point out a coincidence between this focus on his legacy and a recent speech made by former President Jimmy Carter made on Feb 24 at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club (to listen to the speech go to this link ). Since leaving office in 1980 no former president has done more to promote peace and justice around the world than Jimmy Carter, and at 88 years old he is still going strong. While Carter certainly had his failings as a president, one cannot but be impressed with how he has used his status to good ends around the world.
In his speech Carter pointed out that since 1945 the United States has increasingly been seen by other nations of the world not as a force for peace and human rights, but rather as a nation that is constantly at war and denying human rights. He noted wars such as Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central American incursions in the 1980’s often were done to deny human rights and overthrow legitimate governments than to defend those rights. Moreover, he pointed out that currently the U.S. is violating at least 10 paragraphs of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. He said that if the U.S. is to become the great nation it used to be, it must change course and become a defender of justice and human rights rather than a violator. As examples he spoke about the use of drones in Afghanistan, as well as being the major arms dealer to all sorts of nations in the world. He also pointed out that the U.S. imprisons the highest percentage of its population in the world and along with Saudi Arabia and China has the highest rate of capital punishment.
As I listened to a replay of Carter’s speech on the day of Chavez’s death I could not help but be struck by the common theme stressed by two very different leaders from two different positions in the world. Hugo Chavez, a recognized champion of the Latin American poor, and Jimmy Carter, a recognized champion of peace, see the United States as more of threat to the world than its protector. The former was a self-identified foe of the U.S. but the latter still proudly proclaims the United States as the greatest nation in the world. Yet, such a coincidence of their perspectives cannot be ignored.
In business ethics one of the simplest tests of a person’s character is for that person to look him/herself in the mirror and ask whether the person looking back is a person of integrity, compassion and honesty. The great American myth is that we are the defenders and promoters of justice and democracy around the world. Yet our own country suffers increasing economic disparity, while lining the pockets of the very wealthy. We are the only developed nation in the world without universal health care and our public school system has been put up for sale to the highest bidder through charters and privatization. We still have many prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that have never even been charged with a crime, much less given a trial, and we continue to be directly or indirectly involved in armed conflicts all over the world. Can we as a nation look ourselves in the mirror and say we are the best we can be, that we are living up to our values and ideals as Americans?
Recently I took a group of students to visit the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which recounts the writing of the U.S. Constitution and its development throughout U.S. history. Every time I visit the Constitution Center (which has been about 10 times) I am struck by the high ideals on which this country was founded. At the same time I am struck by how far short we continue to fall. What Hugo Chavez and Jimmy Carter reminded me was that not only do I see that, but so do the vast majority of people around the world. Perhaps instead of puffing our chest out in defensive patriotic pride, we ought to take a long look in the national mirror and heed Pres. Carter’s call to seek to be the nation we say we are.