Venezuela

Chavez lives on

Print edition : April 04, 2014

President Nicolas Maduro at a military parade to commemorate the first death anniversary of Hugo Chavez in Caracas on March 5. Photo: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Cuban President Raul Castro (right) and his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales at the parade. Photo: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

A woman puts her arm around a cardboard cut-out of Chavez at Plaza Bolivar in Caracas. Photo: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski (second from right) during a protest he led on March 8. Photo: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP

Chavistas commemorate Hugo Chavez on his first death anniversary and vow to stand by President Nicolas Maduro’s government which opposition groups are working hard to topple.

ON MARCH 5, the streets of Caracas and other cities in Venezuela were flooded with common people who had come out to observe the first death anniversary of Hugo Chavez. The small minority opposed to Chavez’s legacy continued with its violent protests in scattered upper-middle-class areas of Caracas and a few other cities. Raul Castro and Evo Morales, Presidents of Cuba and Bolivia respectively, had flown down to Caracas. In the capital city, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, as the supporters of the late President are known, wore their trademark red shirts and massed in the central square to watch military and civil parades. The walls in the cities were painted and adorned with banners extolling Chavez. The most popular and prominent banner slogans were: “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on”; “This government will continue”; and “Chavez didn’t die, he multiplied”.

The opposition has been staging violent protests since the third week of February demanding the resignation of the democratically elected government of President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition leaders and supporters continued with their protests even as an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans were commemorating Chavez’s death anniversary. They continued to place barricades in the few areas where they have support.

A day after the anniversary, a police officer and a motorcyclist were killed by snipers firing from rooftops when they were clearing the debris strewn around by protesters. Twenty people have been killed since the protests began in February.

Evo Morales said he was in Caracas to express his solidarity with Maduro. “It is our duty to defend elected Presidents. We do not accept coup attempts,” he said.

President Maduro led a huge march to the hilltop military museum in Caracas, the location from where Chavez attempted a dramatic military revolt against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. Chavez’s arrest after the coup failure was telecast live at the time, and it instantly made him a national figure. His remains are entombed in the museum. Maduro extolled Chavez as the leader who presided over “the greatest democratisation of political life in the past 200 years of the [Venezuelan] republic”. He went on to add that history had never witnessed a leader like Chavez “who authentically loved the people, who loved the humble and respected the poor”. Maduro compared Chavez to Simon Bolivar, the 19th century “Liberator” who freed Latin America from colonial rule. “Chavez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar,” Maduro said.

During his time at the helm of affairs, Chavez worked tirelessly to revive Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America and the Caribbean. His visionary efforts laid the groundwork for deeper political and economic integration. He played a crucial role in the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2010. The pan-American regional grouping pointedly excluded the United States and Canada. The Organisation of American States (OAS) was the most important regional grouping until recently. The OAS, created under American supervision during the Cold War days, had expelled Cuba from the grouping after the 1959 revolution. One of the first things Chavez did after coming to power was to create a grouping of like-minded countries in the region called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA. The goal of the nine-member organisation is to integrate the economies of the member-countries and create a single currency.

The victory of Chavez and his socialist agenda in Venezuela in 1998 set in motion the progressive “pink revolution” all over Latin America and the Caribbean, making it the first region that decisively rejected the neoliberal global agenda being promoted by the U.S. and other Western countries. Only a few states in the region remain aligned to Washington. Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with one such country, Panama. Maduro recalled the Venezuelan Ambassador from Panama. He accused the right-wing government of Panama of interfering in the internal affairs of Venezuela by trying to raise in the OAS at the behest of Washington the issue of the ongoing violence. Almost all the other leaders in the region have issued strong statements against the attempts to destabilise the Maduro government and have backed the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation.

All important decisions taken by Chavez as President had the decisive backing of the Venezuelan people. Chavez went to the electorate 14 times to seek their mandate in the 14 years he was in power. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose foundation has monitored elections in over 92 countries, described Venezuela under Chavez as having the best and the freest electoral system in the world.

Participatory democracy

The American historian Greg Grandin has noted that during the Chavez era, participatory democracy took root in all sections of society. Chavez encouraged grass-roots organisations and social movements to organise the people in the barrios (slums), workplaces and the long-neglected rural areas to fight against neoliberalism. Richard Gott, in his book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, described Venezuela as a “vanguard” nation under Chavez where race-related issues “were being brought out into the open, where the white racist opposition has been most vocal, and where the government has come down decidedly on the side of the blacks and the indigenous people”. Maria Paez Victor, a Venezuelan academic, said one reason it was not possible to overthrow the Maduro government by violent means was that the Venezuelan people were now organised into many groups such as communal councils, communes and thousands of health, security, militia, sports, educational and cultural committees. “The Bolivarian revolution has fostered, not a mass of people, but an organised organic population that makes decisions about its living conditions along with its government because Venezuela is now a fully functioning participatory democracy,” Maria Paez Victor, pointed out in an article.

Maduro, whom Chavez named as his successor, is striving to implement the blueprint envisaged by Chavez for Venezuela. The President likes to describe himself as “the son of Chavez”. His opponents are the representatives of the same elite group that staged a short-lived, U.S.-backed coup in 2002 against Chavez. Chavez emerged much stronger after that incident and went on to lay the foundations for what he described as “21st century socialism” in the country. He effectively took control of the state oil company, PDVSA, and used its revenues for the benefit of the poor for the first time in Venezuelan history. Within two years, Chavez created 100,000 worker-owned cooperatives. He also enacted laws that empowered local citizens to form community councils to solve their problems without having to approach the central government in Caracas.

Caracazo
The radicalisation of Venezuelan politics can be traced to an incident that took place 25 years ago. On February 28, 1989, Venezuelans rose in revolt, in a mass movement popularly referred to as the Caracazo, against the World Bank- and International Monetary Fund-dictated neoliberal policies that were being implemented by the Perez government. The policies had resulted in a high rate of unemployment, low wages and mass discontent. Hundreds of people were killed in the revolt. The political and social impact of that uprising led to the radicalisation of Venezuelan politics and the rise of Chavez.

“The people who were massacred 25 years ago are the revolutionary people that today are constructing Bolivarian socialism that is being consolidated in this century. The people broke their bindings and said ‘enough of neoliberalism’,” Maduro observed at the anniversary of the landmark event in the country’s history.

The U.S.-sponsored attempts at regime change currently under way in Venezuela, according to many observers, is likely to boomerang on the opposition in ways similar to the 2002 coup d’etat, which saw the ouster of Chavez for close to two days and his reinstatement thereafter with massive popular support. Even before sections of the opposition went on the rampage, Maduro’s popularity ratings were on the upswing. The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) recorded a decisive victory in the local elections held in December last year.

According to a recent poll conducted by the International Consulting Services (ICS), 85.3 per cent of Venezuelans disagree with the protests mounted by sections of the right wing.

The economy is not doing as badly as sections of the opposition would like the international community to believe. In the last years of the Chavez presidency, Venezuela recorded the sharpest decline in poverty rates in the entire region. Poverty levels fell by 19 per cent in 2013; the rate of unemployment is a low 6 per cent. Despite the high inflation rates, which to a large extent are due to the unscrupulous activities of the rich anti-government business elites, the quality of life of the average Venezuelan has been improving steadily.

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