Latin Americans have spent the past few years finding their voices. Now they may have the strength to defy their northern neighbour. By John PilgerI was dropped at Paradiso, the last middle-class area before La Vega barrio, which spills into a ravine as if by the force of gravity. Storms were forecast and people were anxious, remembering the mudslides of 1999 that took 20,000 lives. "Why are you here?" asked the man sitting opposite me in the packed jeep-bus that chugged up the hill. Like so many in Latin America, he appeared old, but wasn't. Without waiting for my answer, he listed why he supported President Hugo Chavez: schools, clinics, affordable food, "our constitution, our democracy" and "for the first time, the oil money is going to us". I asked him if he belonged to the MVR (Movement for the Fifth Republic), Chavez's party, "No, I've never been in a political party; I can only tell you how my life has been changed, as I never dreamt."
It is raw witness like this, which I have heard over and over again in Venezuela, that smashes the one-way mirror between the west and a continent that is rising. By rising, I mean the phenomenon of millions of people stirring once again, "like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number", wrote Shelley in The Mask of Anarchy. This is not romantic; an epic is unfolding in Latin America that demands our attention beyond the stereotypes and cliches that diminish whole societies to their degree of exploitation and expendability.
To the man in the bus, and to Beatrice whose children are being immunised and taught history, art and music for the first time, and Celedonia, in her seventies, reading and writing for the first time, and Jose whose life was saved by a doctor in the middle of the night, the first doctor he had ever seen, Chavez is neither a "firebrand" nor an "autocrat" but a humanitarian and a democrat who commands almost two-thirds of the popular vote, accredited by victories in no fewer than nine elections. Compare that with the fifth of the British electorate that reinstalled an authentic autocrat in Downing Street.
Chavez and the rise of popular social movements, from Colombia down to Argentina, represent bloodless, radical change across the continent, inspired by the great independence struggles that began with Simon BolIvar, born in 1783 in Venezuela, who brought the ideas of the French Revolution to societies cowed by Spanish absolutism. BolIvar, like Che Guevara in the 1960s and Chavez today, understood the new colonial master to the north. "The USA," he said in 1819, "appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty."