Bolivarian revolutionary

Print edition : April 05, 2013

Chavez with CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat in Caracas in 2004. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In Managua, Nicaragua, in December 2012, people hold up images of Chavez in his support during a concert to mark the eighth anniversary of ALBA. Photo: Esteban Felix/AP

A copy of the Constitution in hand, a woman watches on a big screen Nicolas Maduro being sworn in President on March 8. Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP

No other leader in the world did so much as Hugo Chavez to set the 21st century on a new course. Without him Venezuela will face big challenges in the days to come.

HUGO CHAVEZ, revolutionary leader and symbol of the new wave of the Left in Latin America, is dead. Cancer, which he fought since June 2011, finally took away the life of the 58-year-old leader. He died less than six months after his historic re-election, for the fourth consecutive term, as the President of Venezuela. His loss has plunged the people of Venezuela and the rest of Latin America—and, indeed, people of the Left and other progressive people all over the world—into grief.

The death of Chavez has come at a time when he is needed the most. After the election of October 2012, which he won with a 55 per cent majority, he was set to serve another term of six years, from 2013 to 2019, a period crucial for consolidating the revolutionary process that he had initiated and to advance the regional integration of Latin America, a process in which he had played a key role. But that was not to be.

The accomplishments of Hugo Chavez in the 14 years after he became President are truly extraordinary. His achievement has two dimensions: the domestic one, or his impact on Venezuela’s economy, society and polity; and the external dimension, or his impact on Latin America and international relations in general.

Alternative to neoliberalism

In Venezuela, Chavez strove to build an alternative to the neoliberal model. The success he achieved made him a powerful source of inspiration and a magnet that attracted the entire Left in Latin America. After he took office in 1999, Chavez first embarked on the establishment of a new Constitution, one that truly devolved power to the people.

Venezuela has the biggest oil reserves in the world. From 2002, after the coup against him was foiled by popular upsurge, Chavez went about the task of asserting national sovereignty over the oil resources of the country. He brought the giant oil company, PDVSA, under government control and made Western oil companies conform to stringent terms. He defied the conventional pattern followed by oil-exporting countries, that of parking their petro-dollars in U.S. and Western banks. Nationalisation of the electricity and telecom industries followed.

Land reforms were implemented and three million hectares of land was distributed to tens of thousands of farmers.

The next step Chavez took was to use the oil revenues for the welfare of the people. A number of social missions were set up. The missions, named Mission Robinson, Sucre, and so on, after the liberators of South America, were designed to eradicate illiteracy, to promote education and health, and to provide food and housing facilities for the people.

The results of these pro-people policies have been remarkable. The Bolivarian Republic reduced poverty by half; the poverty rate dropped from 42.8 per cent in 1999 to 26.5 per cent in 2011. Extreme poverty fell by 70 per cent, from 16.6 per cent to 7 per cent, in the same period. Illiteracy was eradicated and the number of teachers went up from 65,000 to 350,000.

When I visited Venezuela in 2004, I saw how life in the barrios (slums) that ring Caracas was changing. There was a network of primary health centres. These clinics were manned by Cuban doctors and medical personnel and they provided first-class medical care. There was a food programme which provided lunch six days a week for children, pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled and those in extreme poverty.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Venezuela, which was the country with the highest income inequality in the 1990s, became the least unequal in Latin America (with a Gini coefficient of 0.39 in 2011).

These major social changes were accomplished by harnessing the power of the people. The Bolivarian revolutionary process involved the creation of 35,000 community councils and a network of popular organisations at the grass-roots level. Chavez recognised the need to organise a party and converted the Movement for the Fifth Republic into a political party, the United Socialist Party (PSUV).

Chavez and the revolutionary process faced intense hostility and constant attacks from the oligarchy, which comprises big business, the landed elite and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. The oligarchy is backed by the United States and foreign capital. Their hatred for Chavez was all the more since he rallied the army and remoulded it into a popular nationalist force. With the support of the working people and the armed forces, Chavez foiled one conspiracy after another to destabilise the revolutionary process.

External relations

Externally, Chavez built a close and strong alliance with Cuba. He embraced the revolutionary philosophy of Fidel Castro and soon became its successful practitioner. It is clear that his leadership of Venezuela helped the Left advance in Latin America: following his first victory in 1998, Left electoral victories followed in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and other countries.

Uniting Latin America

Chavez propounded a “Bolivarian vision”, a vision inspired by Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America from Spanish rule—that of a united Latin America free from imperialist domination. He was instrumental in establishing the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a grouping that comprises eight countries (Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia were the core countries that initiated the formation of the alliance). ALBA was followed by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and finally by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), whose establishment at Caracas in December 2011 was Chavez’s last major step in this direction. (All these regional bodies, it must be noted, have excluded the United States and Canada.) The establishment of Bank of the South, the television station Telasur, and the virtual currency sucre are all products of regional cooperation. Chavez also set up Petrocaribe in order to provide oil at favourable financial terms to the poor countries of the region, such as Haiti.

Above all, Chavez forged an alliance with Cuba that helped the latter tide over the difficult period that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. In a letter to Chavez, written when he left Cuba for the last time on February 17, before he died in Venezuela, Fidel Castro wrote: “When the socialist camp collapsed and the USSR disintegrated and imperialism with its sharpened knife tried to drown the Cuban revolution in blood, Venezuela, a relatively small country in a divided America, was capable of preventing that.”

Revolutionary vision

Such was the revolutionary, internationalist vision of Chavez. His foreign policy was guided by a central point, how to resist imperialist hegemony and protect the sovereignty of Third World countries in order that they are able to develop independently.

No other leader in the world did so much as Hugo Chavez to set the 21st century on a new course.

I met Hugo Chavez in December 2004 in Caracas. In a nearly hour-long meeting, he set out his vision of South-South cooperation and of how to revive the Non-Aligned Movement, and spoke of his own evolving ideas about socialism. He discussed his forthcoming visit to India in 2005 and expressed a keen interest to visit Kolkata.

Chavez did visit India in March 2005. He also went to Kolkata where he received a big reception from the people who lined the route from the airport to the stadium where a public reception was held. Chavez was greatly enthused and he told the media that he had not got such a big response from the people anywhere else outside Venezuela except Porto Alegre in Brazil.

The Left and popular forces in Venezuela are determined to carry on along the path built by Hugo Chavez. Without Chavez they will have to face big challenges in the days to come. They will have to maintain the broad unity of the Left and progressive forces which Chavez, with his unique qualities, had forged.

The civil-military alliance which is the bedrock of the Bolivarian revolution has to be continued. The efforts of the right-wing forces and the U.S. to roll back Chavismo has to be countered. The days ahead will be testing. But the people who turned out in their tens of thousands proclaiming “Chavez lives, the struggle continues” will keep the vision of Chavez alive.