Evolution of a practical visionary

Print edition : April 05, 2013

With friend and mentor Fidel Castro in Barinas, Venezuela, near his hometown of Sabaneta on October 28, 2000. Photo: Jose Goitia/AP

October 4, 2012: speaking in the rain during his closing campaign rally for the presidential election, in Caracas. Photo: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

February 4, 1999: after he was first sworn in President, with his wife, Marisabel. Photo: Douglas Engle/AP

Chavez (right) being escorted by military intelligence officers after being arrested for trying to overthrow Venezuela's government in a coup on February 5, 1992. Photo: ANDRES LEIGHTON/AP

At a party during his years at the Military Academy in Caracas in this undated photo. Photo: REUTERS

Cuban doctor Vivian Iglesias examining a child at a medical centre in Caracas on July 15, 2003. Iglesias was one of the 1,000 Cuban doctors who lived and worked in Venezuelan slums in a project sponsored by Chavez. Photo: FERNANDO LLANO/AP

Steering clear of neoliberalism as well as classical communist traditions, Hugo Chavez has sown the seeds of institutions rooted in the Venezuelan reality. Their transformative potential has already turned the country into one of the more equitable societies in the world today.

HUGO CHAVEZ lived a short, inspired, inspiring life, unfinished, and, in a profound sense, unfinishable. Such as him always die much too soon. When the time eventually comes for Fidel Castro to go, he too will have departed too soon. Chavez was, of course, cut down in the prime of his life, quickly, at barely 58, in the best of health until that mysterious, fatal cancer started doing its evil work, and the end then came very quickly, despite the best efforts of Cuba’s legendary health system.

Some say there was more to that cancer than meets the eye; that certainly is the implication of the words used by Nicolas Maduro, the former bus driver and union leader who served as Vice-President of Venezuela until recently and whom Chavez designated as his successor. What can be said without any doubt, however, is this: when the Latin American Left—the global Left, for that matter—looks back at its own history a hundred years from now, the one name that will loom the largest for the opening decade of the 21st century will be that of Hugo Chavez.

The effective life, the life for which posterity shall chiefly remember him, was in fact very much shorter than it seems—barely a decade, I would say, which earnestly began only in 2004 after he had beaten back three major challenges to his authority. The first of these challenges came in the shape of a full-fledged, United States-backed military coup in April 2002 which almost succeeded. Then, having failed to dislodge him through military means, they tried to overthrow him through a two-month-long attempt at massive national chaos and disruption, beginning in December that same year, with the so-called “strike” at the state-run oil company PDVS which was formally staged by the management but really stage-managed by the traditional ruling classes, their partiers, media monopolies and support bases among the affluent sections of the urban middle class. When the extraconstitutional means failed, those same forces resorted to a provision that Chavez himself had introduced into the Constitution, namely the right to recall a serving President through a popular referendum. In the event, Chavez won that referendum by 59 per cent, just as he had previously won two presidential elections—as well as the referendum on the new Constitution he had put in place soon after getting elected the first time—with similar margins. The putting in place of that enabling Constitution was undoubtedly a major achievement, as was the chain of electoral victories; it added up to an enormous reservoir of democratic legitimacy which Chavez was careful to go on refurbishing at every turn for the rest of his life. However, it was only with the full consolidation of power in 2004 that he was then able to lead the historic, multifaceted transformations for which Venezuela was to become so justly famous in our time. Nine years later, he was dead.

Before we delve into some details of this extraordinary life, it might be useful to emphasise an aspect of his personality that appears to have been absolutely central to his personality and his visionary capacity and which gets mentioned very rarely: his very broad intellectual culture, and his extraordinary receptivity to a wide spectrum of ideas, from all kinds of quarters, in order to think through the many kinds of experimentations that would be required to find our way into what may one day become a post-Soviet “socialism of the 21st century”. To illustrate the first point, let me quote a few sentences from Emir Sader, the formidable Brazilian intellectual:

Hugo Chavez always said that a key book he had read during his prison years was Beyond Capital by his friend István Mészáros…. The last time I was able to be with Chavez was on the occasion of the Forum of São Paulo during his electoral campaign last year. At the closing ceremony at the Teresa Carreño Theater, he had a copy of Mészáros's book with him and told an old Venezuelan man, who had recently managed to learn to read, that one day he should read Beyond Capital . The intellectual restlessness of Hugo Chavez was always impressive. In any conversation with him, Chavez immediately took interest in what people were saying, asking for reading suggestions and other information. In his TV programme Aló Presidente, he mentioned that he was reading authors like Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, beyond, as always, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. He read during his constant air travels.

His restless theoretical curiosity was always tied to the concrete reality of Venezuela and Latin America.

As one who has actually grappled with Beyond Capital I can testify that the reading of it is arduous labour.

And, of course, there was that famous day in 2006 when Chavez addressed the U.N. General Assembly and said of George W. Bush: “Yesterday, the devil came here…. And it smells of sulphur still today”; as antidote, he recommended to the assembled delegates that they read Noam Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival, helping to make the book an international bestseller. He also got a million copies of Don Quixote published at state expenditure and had them distributed to a million households that were new beneficiaries of popular literary campaigns. He would routinely discuss two or three books in every session of his weekly talk show, “Alo Presidente”, which he kept up for more than a decade. Such stories are myriad.

As for his openness to new ideas regarding social transformation and his penchant for translating conceptual abstraction into practical possibilities, the kind of reforms that were initiated under his guidance in a variety of areas, from economic production and distribution to the re-organisation of social and political power, will tell their own story when we briefly turn to them later. To give but one small example: as some women have reminded us, it is only fitting that Chavez received his tumultuous funeral on March 8, the International Women’s Day, since he was the first President of any country who argued that women’s unpaid domestic labour was productive labour and deserved remuneration like any other form of labour.

Beginnings

Before winning his first presidential election in 1998 (inaugurated on February 2, 1999), Chavez had gone through a prolonged, often quixotic political apprenticeship over roughly two decades, starting in 1977 when, at the young age of 23, he established a conspiratorial group with a small number of friends and gave it the grand name of the Venezuelan People’s Liberation Army (ELPV, in Spanish acronym). Like many other Latin American countries, Venezuela too was rife with a variety of militant, though not very large, left-wing organisations, including the communist party as well as guerilla groups; Chavez’s brother was himself part of one of such groups. Chavez and his friends were clearly aware of these groups and were even in contact with some of them. The range of left-wing ideas circulating in the air was bewilderingly wide: Peronist populism and liberation theology, Communism and Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism and Guevarism, revolutionary nationalism and continental unification, and just plain radical opposition to military dictatorships, neoliberal policies, the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There was even a tradition of military radicalism, especially among officers drawn from peasant backgrounds such as Chavez himself.

He and his friends were clearly caught in this vortex. However, it is equally clear that they were largely clueless as to any precise social vision, political strategy or even military planning for a left-wing officers’ coup until well after the early ELVP had metamorphosed into what was now called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200) five years later. The catalysing event for Chavez came in 1989 with the famous popular uprising in Caracas and the regime’s suppression of it, generally known as El Caracazo, with thousands massacred; Chavez was out of action that day, lying in a hospital with chicken pox, but referred to that massacre later as a “genocide”. Events of that kind rarely lead to theoretical illumination or any programmatic clarity as to what would come after the seizure of power in case one actually succeeded. Chavez and his friends seem to have drawn two conclusions, though: to expedite preparations for a military coup from the Left (what Chavez was to call “Bolivarian military uprising”); and, that the level of popular anger was such that they were likely to gain rapid acceptance and wide popularity in case they succeeded in their audacious bid. The coup was duly mounted three years later, in 1992, and it failed. However, the other calculation proved correct. As the undisputed leader of a heroic bid to overthrow the regime and redeem the nation, and commanding an exceptional degree of eloquence in public speech, Chavez won instant popularity and, even as he languished in prison for the next two years, he was on his way to becoming a folk hero.

That failure and the fact that he managed to survive so as to fight another day also did something else: it seems to have tilted the balance in the internal dialogue, among Chavez and his widening circle of comrades and cohorts, over the legitimacy and efficacy of relying primarily on military means. The great importance of military power was not at issue. For instance, once the U.S. had made up its mind to have the elected socialist government of President Salvatore Allende overthrown by military force, the fatal coup of 1973, one of the most murderous in history, proved unstoppable precisely because the elected government had no effective control over the armed forces if they decided to defy that government. Conversely, when an almost successful coup was staged against Chavez himself in 2002, what saved the day was his own independent political base among key sections of the military. Ultimate power is state power, and the heart of all state power, in all decisive moments, is the control over means of violence, that is, the military and security forces.

That much is clear enough. But the lessons of the failed coup also had to be learned. And, what happens if a coup from the Left succeeds without building a mass base, and without an organised political instrumentality to fight a war of position and realise its objectives? Can an isolated regime of that kind survive? Can it survive without itself becoming a machinery of violence against its own people? And, what are the objectives of such a military insurrection anyway?

The two years in prison ended in 1994 by virtue of a pardon by the new government, and the next elections were due in 1998. If the 15 years up to 1992 were the years of apprenticeship in revolutionary enthusiasm, with putschist plans for the seizure of power and an amalgam of widely divergent inspirations in lieu of an ideology, the next six years between the failed coup and the decisive victory in presidential election were a transitional phase in which Chavez deepened his political education, started thinking programmatically about an alternative model of state formation, initiated new alliances and, once released from prison, travelled widely inside the country as well as elsewhere in Latin America for intensive, wide-ranging dialogue over political strategy. His MBR-200 increasingly became the centre of attraction for a spectrum of leftwing forces to congregate in a unified movement, and Chavez, the audacious hero of a failed coup, emerged by far as the most popular and credible candidate to take on the established political parties in electoral contest. By then, Chavez and his group had become fully committed to the electoral road, with organised military cells in the background. The principal Left groupings in the country dissolved themselves into the much broader front of forces, though not exactly a political party, and called it the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR, in Spanish initials), while MBR-200 too ceased to exist and became a part of this broader Movement.

As the name of the Movement itself would suggest, abrogating the old Constitution and electing a new Constituent Assembly to draft a politically more radical, more pro-people Constitution was a key promise in Chavez’s electoral plank. So when he took the oath of office at the time of presidential inauguration in February 1999, he departed from the wording of the oath to assert: “I swear before my people that upon this moribund constitution I shall drive forth the necessary democratic transformations so that the Republic will have a Magna Carta befitting these times.” The flamboyance of the gesture was emblematic of Chavezian audacity but the wording was shrewd. Reference to the Magna Carta was meant to reassure that popular liberties shall be respected and arbitrary government shunned, but “Magna Carta befitting these times” could have meant any number of things, ranging from Mao’s “New Democracy” to all manner of social democratic claims and reform platforms. What it actually meant got clarified gradually, first in the new Constitution itself, then in the strict observance of constitutional provision that Chavez then sought rigorously to uphold, and then over roughly a decade, through trial and error, in an open process, through wide-ranging reforms, not all of them successfully implemented but, in sum, producing cumulative results that are impressive in their augmentation of social justice and democratisation of effective political power.





Growing into revolutionary shoes

We shall come shortly to some of the statistical reflection of those changes. Certain things need to be said right away. Chavez was first elected in 1998 at the head of a newly formed “Movement” that was by any standards quite modest in size, and he got elected largely because of his personal charisma and populist invocations; upon his death 15 years later, he has left behind a cohesive, highly motivated, well-organised party of seven million which intersects with numerous organs of popular power of various kinds.

As a young man, when he was forming his conspiratorial groups, he was certainly exposed to left-wing ideas and currents of anti-imperialist nationalism, but he was equally opposed to both neoliberalism and the communist tradition. As he matured, his dislike of U.S. imperialism and the core institutions and policies of neoliberalism deepened, while he softened on issues relating to the complex of communist legacies. He brought the communist party into his alliance, formed very close personal ties with Fidel Castro and established extensive cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela; Fidel is said to have remarked several years ago, even before Chavez was fully in command, that his coming to power in Venezuela was the first time that encirclement of the Cuban revolution was to any degree broken.

None of it means that Chavez was in any sense a communist; he never claimed to be and said openly, again and again, that in his view ours was not a period of working class revolutions. When he spoke of “21st century socialism”, one of the meanings of the term undoubtedly was that anything that could decently be called “socialist” in this new century will have to depart radically from the organisational forms of state and society that gave us socialisms of the previous century. In a sense, this is not very different from Marx’s famous postulate, in his own time, that revolutions of the 19th century can only go forward by criticising the revolutions of the 18th century. But Chavez never claimed to be strictly a Marxist either. It is accurate to say, in my view, that Chavez was a truly revolutionary nationalist and that it was the revolutionary character of his anti-imperialist nationalism that kept pushing him in the direction of socialism. It needs to be added, though, that initiating his own political project in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the whole Soviet system, Chavez was not at all sure that he knew what a socialist society would be like. So he opened himself up to a very wide range of ideas that could in any way be associated with projects of radical social change, and he absorbed like a sponge the ones he thought best and most translatable into practice within Venezuelan reality.

Virtually everyone in Latin America waxes eloquent on the need for continental unity; dating back to Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti; there is a powerful tradition of revolutionary transcontinental nationalism that has seen this unity as the precondition for effective resistance against the predatory power of the U.S. Chavez pushed forward this project of continental unity more energetically than any other leader in our time. This is owed to three factors. The first is a profound personal commitment to this project since the early days of his politicisation; the self-image of the Movement since its very inception as “Bolivarian” indicates that commitment. Second, and uniquely, as the President of Venezuela with its oil wealth, he had access to material means for promoting such a policy; whether in Venezuela’s relations with Cuba, or with other Carribean countries, or elsewhere in South America, oil as commodity and as source of finance has been of central importance. The point nevertheless remains that Venezuela had this oil in the past as well, and Brazil and Argentina, for instance, have in their own way the continent’s more powerful economies, none ever financed projects of this kind; Chavez at least initiated a whole range of concrete programmes for various kinds of regional integrations, challenging all the North American plans to craft pro-imperialist policies under U.S. tutelage.

Thirdly, the historical conjuncture itself favoured this new configuration. The contrast with Cuba could not be sharper. The Cuban revolution occurred at the height of U.S. prosperity, well before it got bogged down in Vietnam or its economic stagnation began; Cuba was an impoverished little island, a little neo-colony 145 kilometres off the Florida coast; successful U.S.-sponsored military coups across Latin America preceded the Cuban revolution (in Guatemala) and followed it (in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina). By contrast, Venezuela was potentially a very wealthy country (not only oil), and by the time Chavez stabilised his power in 2004, the U.S. was fully mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, its foreign policy largely mortgaged to Israel and, to a far lesser degree, amenable to manipulation by the Gulf monarchies. After the U.S. tried and failed to overthrow Chavez through military means in 2002, it was left with really only two options: undermining him politically by manipulating the extraordinary degree of freedom that prevailed in Venezuela, or assassination. Various U.S. outfits are known to have funded more than 130 “pro-democracy” organisations against the “totalitarian regime” of Hugo Chavez—this, in a country where Chavez won 15 consecutive elections and referendums through a process that Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President, calls “the best in the world”.

As for assassination, that was always an eerie possibility. “Chavez, be careful,” Fidel Castro used to admonish him, “They have technology.” A seasoned security detail was despatched for him from Cuba. I had the occasion to witness those security officers in action. Chavez was holding his famous radio show in the compound of a high school in his native town, from where it was being televised nationally, with large numbers of local people in attendance, including his parents. After about three hours, torrential tropical rains suddenly started. In the chaos, the adoring crowd surged forth, to be close to their President, possibly to touch him, possibly to tear off a piece of his shirt to take home as a souvenir. The security guards moved in and whisked him away but many were able to come close, and touch. Anyone of them might have easily come with a needle; that day, no one did.

While this tussle was going on between the U.S. and the man who had called its vengeful President a “devil” from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, this sea change in Venezuelan affairs followed, not by pro-U.S. coups but by a series of electoral victories for left-wing Presidents. Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia were significant in this regard. They had suffered brutal military dictatorships in the wake of the Cuban revolution, so as to suppress generalised leftwing militancy during that period; now, as Chavez won the Venezuelan elections, it was followed by the election of leftist Presidents in all three countries, followed by similar elections elsewhere. Times were auspicious for Chavez to start again dreaming the dream of anti-imperialist unity across the continent.

We could go into details of the number of organisations that came into being to buttress this unity—such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA, in Spanish acronym), among others—and numerous initiatives for greater regional integration in various areas, ranging from finance (Bank of the South, for instance) to culture and information (for example, Telesur). Others have written on these issues and will continue to do so. A few broad points can be made, however. First, no such practical steps, certainly not a coherent series of them, were proposed before Chavez and his colleagues started pushing the project, in whatever imperfect shape. No one should believe that anything of this magnitude can succeed quickly, in even a decade or a generation. What matters is the idea, the proposition, the seed, and as many practical beginnings as possible to nurse the seed and to nourish the saplings. The beginnings might take a century before real fruition; or it may all be crushed the next year. Audacious plans of this nature are essentially a wager against the imperialist tide of our times. Chavez, in any case, did not have much time and, like everything else that is original and visionary, this too has been prone to trial and error.

In Chavez’s eventual understanding of it, revolutionary anti-imperialist nationalism required some semblance of the broadest possible united front that was comprised of, as it were, concentric circles. As the head of a state, he could do something positive in the construction of such a united front, mainly at the state-to-state level. At the heart of his efforts was what he could achieve, or at least set in motion, inside Venezuela. Beyond that was the special relationship with Cuba, the really radical move that ended forever any possibility of compromise with the U.S. Beyond that was the meeting of minds and coordination of policies with Bolivia and Ecuador; then the immense effort that went into keeping the alliance with Brazil and Argentina vibrant, despite differences, not to speak of several other overlaps as well, as with Ortega’s Nicaragua or Bachelet’s Chile—so as to build a force so irresistible that even Colombia, a U.S. client if there ever was one, was forced to join the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, in Spanish initials), the last and widest initiative undertaken to realise that envisioned unity while Chavez was still alive.

But there was another level as well, beyond Latin America and the Caribbean: a general, methodical anti-imperialist stance and an effort to cultivate relationships across the world wherever there was any opening for what I have described as “state-to-state broadest possible anti-imperialist front”. He denounced America’s most recent war against the Afghan people as soon as it began (“you cannot fight terrorism with terrorism”) and followed it up with vigorous opposition to every imperialist stratagem in the region. This had already offended every branch of the U.S. government. But then he also went ahead with building cordial relations with Iran, China and Russia—countries which are viewed by much of the U.S. Left the same way as their government does: outposts of barbarism, remnants of the evil empire. Large sections of that Left got disillusioned with Chavez on that score and showered all kinds of epithets on him for being cordial towards Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President; many of the same people would enthusiastically support Barack Obama against Mitt Romney as the lesser evil. Is Ahmadinejad not a lesser evil than Obama? All kinds of racist stereotypes begin to haunt such leftists when faced with questions of that kind.

The point again is not to build up a ledger of successes and failures on any of this during the brief tenure of office that Chavez was able to command. There was always the issue of the learning curve, step by step; the brevity of time available to him to pursue his ideas; the paucity of resources with which to shape events at home and abroad. The issue, simply, is the vision we need to recognise, share and inherit.

A brief balance sheet

It is somewhat easier to draw up at least a brief ledger for some of the transformations that occurred inside Venezuela over roughly 15 years while Chavez was President. Facts are actually very well known, many of them attested by various international agencies, from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and repeated across the spectrum of Left writings on Chavez. Some may be mentioned here for illustrative purposes.

Chavez was often accused of authoritarianism, and he surely had an egoistic, authoritarian streak in him. However, for a man whose only extended practical experience was in the hierarchical organisation of the military and who shot to the presidency of the country largely on the basis of personal charisma and mass adulation, and who then had to rely substantially on the moribund, corrupt state bureaucracy for having his reform programs implemented, he had exceptionally high regard for the people’s rights and liberties, for the construction of popular organs of power and communication, for the sanctity of constitutional guarantees and genuine electoral processes, for initiatives undertaken by countless young activists who were getting constantly inducted into the Bolivarian processes and mobilisations. The writing of a new Constitution that Chavez initiated and which has been emulated in Bolivia and Ecuador was designed precisely to ensure democratisation in the exercise of power, protection of popular entitlements, reaffirming national sovereign power over the utilisation of the country’s natural resources and the structures of its economy, and the utilisation of public wealth for the well-being of the heretofore deprived classes.

From communal councils to worker-run factories, from community radio stations and TV channels to tens of thousands of business cooperatives, Venezuela under Chavez initiated some of the most sophisticated experiments in direct democracy, socialisation and workers’ control in the world. The communal councils, for example, were created to form a direct link between the central state and local communities, bypassing state- and district-level bureaucrats. In the urban areas, such councils were expected to include 150 or more families, in the rural areas 30 families, and anyone above the age of 15 was entitled to participate in its deliberations over common needs in areas such as health, education, and sanitation, draw up projects, acquire funds directly from the central government and implement those plans. There are now said to be 30,000 such councils. Mismanagement was of course common, as all such experiments in new forms of planning and execution at the popular level must necessarily go through, but such mismanagement was surely less than was routinely the case with the more traditional bureaucratic structures. The point, in any case, is that the “authoritarian” President was extraordinarily devoted to undermining the familiar patterns of authoritarian rule.

Imperfections and problems were countless. It nevertheless is the case that Venezuela is now the least unequal country in the region, where, over a decade or so, poverty has been reduced from 70 per cent to 21 per cent and extreme poverty from 40 per cent to 7 per cent. The UNESCO recognises that illiteracy has been eradicated altogether and tuition-free education is available from day-care up to the university level; one out of every three Venezuelans are currently enrolled in one educational programme or another, and the number of tertiary level students rose from 895,000 in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2011. While 90 per cent of the food was imported in 1980, now it is below 30 per cent, even though per capita food consumption has more than doubled during the Chavez years. Five million Venezuelans receive free food, and the state has been establishing an expanding network of subsidised food distribution through grocery stores and supermarkets. Meanwhile, tax collection has grown so rapidly that the state now collects as much revenue through such collection as through the sale of oil.

We can go on multiplying such statistics in a whole range of areas from health to agriculture. Great gains in the well-being of the masses of Venezuelan people and their sense of having greater control of their own lives is undeniable. That is no mean achievement for so novel and beleaguered an experiment, in defiance of imperialist pressure.

Conclusion

I have repeatedly argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union signalled the end of a whole historical period, and this sense of an ending is only compounded by the further collapse or seeping disarray among other socialist states that arose in the course of the 20th century. A certain history of making revolutions and attempting to build socialist systems is now behind us and cannot be resurrected in those forms. Large sections of humanity have therefore embarked on countless experiments in forms of action, seeking radical social transformation, so that, theoretically and practically, altogether new revolutionary forms may be discovered that would be appropriate for revolutions of the future.

No advanced capitalist country shows any signs of even the beginning of such a transformation. Latin America is the chief locus for these stirrings in our time, and Venezuela has been at the cutting edge of it all. So far the combination of concrete reforms for the people’s welfare are here combined with far-reaching experimentation in what one day may become an adequate revolutionary form. There is no end to the number of faults we can find but in these days of mourning, when a whole continent grieves for its most illustrious son, solidarity and salutation is the primary duty.

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