As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fights for his life, an honest assessment of his 14 years in office must take into account his significant achievements.

From humble origins, Chavez worked his way up the ranks of the Venezuelan military. He hit the national spotlight in 1992 after leading military officers in a failed coup attempt.

In a televised address, Chavez admitted the power grab had failed -- "for now," as he ominously put it. For many viewers, the obscure colonel became a national folk hero, someone who had finally stood up to a corrupt regime.

Six years later, Chavez won the presidency on a platform of shaking up the nation's political system and using the country's vast oil wealth to improve living standards.

He managed to do both.

For decades, the country's massive oil reserves -- estimated to be larger than Saudi Arabia's -- benefitted only a tiny elite, while millions wallowed in grinding poverty.

But since the Chavez government gained control of the oil industry in 2003, the proportion of Venezuelans living in poverty has been cut in half, from 60 percent to 30 percent. Health care and a college education -- once luxuries enjoyed only by the wealthy -- have become widely and freely available. And the country is now practically free of illiteracy.

Critics often question Chavez's democratic credentials, but he and his party have won 13 of the last 14 national elections. Voter turnout reached 80 percent during the last election -- far surpassing U.S. averages.

During his first year in office, voters approved a new constitution that dramatically boosted citizen involvement in government. Millions of poor Venezuelans now participate in local planning councils and in the naming of public officials. The slums are packed with communal councils and other civic organizations.

The government has also democratized access to the media by funding community TV and radio stations in poor barrios.

Chavez's impact extends far beyond Venezuela's borders, particularly as the most active proponent of Latin American integration. Besides building badly needed regional infrastructure -- like highways and pipelines -- integration efforts have given Latin America a much stronger position on the world stage. By helping establish regional bodies such as the Union of South American Nations, Chavez has enabled the region to chart a more independent path from Washington.

For Chavez, this has been in keeping with his attempt to fulfill the unrealized dream of his personal hero, South American independence fighter Simon Bolívar.

Chavez's death would be a great loss not only for Venezuela, but for all of Latin America.

Teo Ballve is a fellow of the Drugs, Security, and Democracy program of the Social Science Research Council. He can be reached at

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The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

The reach of this story extends from the lowliest working stiff to the highest court in the land.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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