Why the Black and Poor Loved Hugo Chávez

The president, who died at age 58 this week, was a leader who helped bring their struggles to light.

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Again, Chávez was finding ways to see them -- and not force them into the kind of invisibility that buttresses myths about racial democracy in Latin America.

But during my time in Venezuela, the black people I encountered were also being drawn to Chávez because of the changes he was making to reduce poverty and to tear down barriers to progress.

One of those accomplishments was Barrio Adentro, a health mission outside of Caracas that I visited. It is run by Cuban and Venezuelan doctors, and the poorest Venezuelans are able to get health care there.

"The only thing you need to come here is your own will," one black Venezuelan said, through a translator, as he waited outside. "You don't have to be part of the [Bolivarian] revolution to come."

Black people like him were already warming to Chávez's changes.

Those changes included using the country's resources to initiate reforms that have led to dramatic dips in poverty. According to the CIA World Factbook, Venezuela's poverty rate has fallen from 50 percent in 1999, when Chávez took office, to 27 percent in 2011.

Also, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research (pdf), families living in extreme poverty have dropped from 16 percent to 7 percent since Chávez took office, an achievement the center calls significant and one that puts Venezuela within reach of eliminating extreme poverty altogether.

Social spending under Chávez has also led to better living standards. Infant mortality has fallen from 21 percent to 14 percent per every 1,000 births. School enrollment has increased, and people have greater access to things that we in the U.S. take for granted, such as clean water and sanitation.

That was the track on which Chávez was taking the country -- and it apparently was the one about which pro-Chávez supporters cared. And what it showed me are the things we miss when we view places strictly through the prism of U.S. interests.

And I couldn't help thinking how those red-shirted marchers -- the ones shouting "Chávez todo!" and furiously waving the Venezuelan flag -- and the man at Barrio Adentro were a big part of the story of Venezuela, a country that is 67 percent mestizo and 10 percent black.

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