A Once and Future Revolution: The Legacy of Hugo Chávez
Roger D. Harris
The rich and reactionary in Venezuela and their allies in Washington celebrated when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died two years ago on March 5, 2013. US President Barack Obama did not even make the customary and common courtesy of sending his condolences for the passing of a head of state.
Instead the US empire stepped up its demonization campaign against Chávez’s legacy in order to bury his Bolivarian Revolution. In contrast to his treatment of Chávez, Obama was effusive in his praise of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died in January 2015 and was the leader of a country which Amnesty International rightly labels one of the most tyrannical and repressive regimes in the world.
¡Yo Soy Chávez!
So why did poor and progressive people in Venezuela, throughout Latin America, and indeed all over the world mourn Chávez’s passing and proclaim ¡Yo soy Chávez! (‘I am Chávez’)?
Lisa Sullivan, a School of the America Watch activist who has lived in the barrios of Venezuela where she brought up her three children, had this to say at the time of Chávez’s passing: “Let there be no doubt: the Venezuelan people have come of age. Chávez is gone, but what resonates on every street and every plaza today: Yo soy Chávez. I am Chávez. I am the leader, the dreamer, the visionary, the teacher, the defender of justice, the weaver of another world that is possible.”
More than anything, the phrase Yo soy Chávez is a declaration of empowerment…this in a nutshell is the great legacy of Hugo Chávez and the one that the empire is bent on destroying. In contrast, when Ronald Reagan died – arguably one of the most influential US presidents in the 20th century, no one said “I am Ronnie.”
Chávez’s Grand Synthesis
Hugo Chávez was born to humble origins. He was brought up in a mud hut by his grandmother, because his parents were too poor to care for all of their children.
Chávez was of mixed ethnic origin: European, Indigenous, and African blood runs through his lineage. Chávez was known to comment that he loved his broad lips and curly hair – referring to his African heritage, in a nation where the elite worshiped European standards of beauty. Venezuela has the most Miss Universes to its credit, and cosmetic plastic surgery may well be considered the national pastime for certain sectors of the populace.
Much changed in the 14 years of Hugo Chávez’s stewardship in Venezuela. One of the most profound and influential aspects of the Chávez legacy is his original synthesis of three grand strands of political discourse: popular Christian ethics, Simón Bolívar’s heritage of regional integration, and socialist political-economic thought.
Chávez had a voracious appetite for reading, a towering intellect, and insomnia; three characteristics that made him a particularly fast learner.
Popular Christianity, an early and enduring influence for Hugo Chávez, informed his deep commitment to justice and the equality as well as his generosity and forgiveness of adversaries. Let it be noted that rather than executing the perpetrators of the US-backed coup in 2002 or even jailing them, Chávez gave them amnesty, demonstrating a belief in redemption and forgiveness.
Central to popular Christian thought is the “preferential option for the poor,” which Chávez saw as creating a state that serves the interest of poor and working people rather than the rich. Inheriting a state bureaucracy from the old order, Chávez set to work creating a parallel order of institutions to serve the poor.
Drawing from Christian imagery, he called these new parallel state institutions for the poor “missions.” About 1.5 million Venezuelans learned to read and write thanks to the Mission Robinson I literacy campaign. Free access to health care was ensured for all Venezuelans with Mission Barrio Adentro; the number of doctors increased, infant mortality rate fell, and average life expectancy increased.
Chávez led the rewriting of the Venezuelan constitution to reflect the interests of the poor. A new electoral system was instituted, which Jimmy Carter deemed the “best in the world.”
Simón Bolívar: Venezuelan National Identity
The second great wellspring of Chávista thought was the man who led the liberation of the Spanish colonies in South America, Simón Bolívar.
Pre-Chávez, Venezuela was arguably the most Americanized country in South America. The elite especially privileged US culture over Venezuelan culture. Venezuelans played baseball, not soccer. A mere decade and a half ago, most analysts would have ranked Venezuela the least likely candidate nation to stand up on its own two feet to challenge the empire to be recognized as sovereign and equal.
One of the few avenues for advancement for a poor boy like Chávez was to join the military. In the military, Chávez intensively studied the history of his country, eventually taught at the military college, and developed a new synthesis of revolutionary nationalism. Chávez literally rewrote the history of Venezuela and popularized it.
An analogous scenario for the US would involve Howard Zinn, author ofA People’s History of the United States. Imagine if that view of history became the dominant one and as a bonus Zinn would have become the president of the US. That is the magnitude of the sea change of popular understanding of Venezuelan history that took place under Chávez.
In a mere 14 years home grown culture blossomed. A renewed sense of national identity and pride had become nearly universal, even among the Miami jet-setting opposition elements.
Today the young musical wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel is not only the director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar in Venezuela, but also of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles. Culture is still being imported, but the shipping lanes are going both ways now.
Early on Chávez appropriated the symbols of Venezuelan national pride, calling his movement the Bolivarian Revolution. When Pedro Carmona was sworn in as the president in the short-lived US-backed coup in 2002, the coup perpetrators removed the portrait of Simón Bolívar from behind the presidential seat.
Now even the opposition cannot ignore the Bolivarian heritage. The same man who supported the coup attempt in 2002, opposition candidate Enrique Capriles, called his presidential election campaign organization Command Bolívar in 2013. That Capriles changed his colors is a testament to how thoroughly the symbols of the Chávista Bolivarian Revolution had captured the popular consciousness that even the opposition had to appropriate them to stay in the game.
The hypocrisy of the US-backed opposition taking on the colors of Bolívar is unmasked by Simón Bolívar’s own prescient words made back in 1829: “The United States appears to be destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”
The Chavistas have no illusions about what their opposition represented, as a Chávista flyer from the 2013 election campaign shows Uncle Sam wearing a Capriles mask. Chávista militants continually raise the examples of Chile in 1973 and more recently of Libya and Syria where the US used destabilization efforts to try to foment regime change. As recently as February 12, following a new round of US sanctions, Venezuelan President Maduro revealed an active plan to overthrow this government.
Bolívar: Regional IntegrationIn the tradition of Bolívar, Chávez was instrumental in promoting regional integration. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) was founded in 2004 between Cuba and Venezuela and now comprises 11 member countries. ALBA is based on fair trade, mutual respect, and reciprocity.PetroCaribe, created in 2005, affords 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with a secure energy supply. Chávez was instrumental in 2008 in forming UNASUR, an intergovernmental union of the South American nations, modeled after the European Union. Chávez was at the heart of the creation in 2011 of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) bringing together for the first time all 33 nations of the Western Hemisphere, emancipated from the tutelage of the United States and Canada, which have been excluded from the body.These counter hegemonic projects provide an alternative to subordination to the US empire, which explains why Venezuela is being targeted by the US with sanctions and other measures to achieve regime change.
21st Century Socialism
For Hugo Chávez, Christian and socialist values neatly dovetailed. The Christian special option for the poor became the socialist centrality of class struggle.
Whereas Hugo Chávez absorbed popular Christian values as a child and discovered Bolívar as a young man, his synthesis of the socialist tradition did not come until after he assumed the Venezuelan presidency in 1999. It was not until 2005 that Chávez announced that the goal of the Bolivarian Revolution was the establishment of 21st century socialism.
The Bolivarian movement came to embrace socialism for pragmatic reasons. Through the practical experience of governance, it became increasingly clear to Chávez and those around him that capitalism with its ethic of production for profit could not achieve their social justice objectives.
Out of the socialist tradition, Chávez has championed community councils and other instruments of participatory democracy, cooperatives providing employment and education in communitarian values to their members, and worker-managed industries.
The accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution to date are many: land distributed to the landless, poverty rate halved and extreme poverty reduced by two-thirds, child malnutrition reduced, access to safe drinking water increased, etc. Social expenditures have been increased and pensions for the elderly went from less than 400,000 recipients to over two million, while hundreds of thousands of new homes were built for those in slums.
Problems of Building 21st Century Socialism
Venezuela went from being among one of the most economically unequal nations in the Latin America to being among the most equal through the exercise of state power for the populace. All these gains are currently at stake.
Chávez’s successor is Nicolás Maduro. Now as the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Maduro’s responsibility is to lead the defense of the Bolivarian Revolution against the assaults of the opposition bent at La Salida (literally, The Exit, but in plain English its ‘regime change’) to achieve by destabilization and violence what they could not achieve at the ballot box. On February 11, three opposition leaders called for ‘The Transition’ to replace President Maduro, which notably did not say by democratic means. The opposition is abetted by millions of “democracy enhancement” dollars from the US government along with economic and diplomatic sanctions against Maduro’s democratic government.
The problems of building 21st century socialism on a capitalist foundation include crime, inefficiency/shortages, and inflation/devaluation. These are the problems inherited from the existing capitalist order and exacerbated by the sabotage of the opposition. This is the time bomb that has been handed to Maduro.
As Álvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia, commented, the task of building socialism in a society that is still capitalist to like trying to overhaul the engine of your car while it is still running. Justice demands that the Venezuelans be allowed to resolve their problems without the interference of the US government.