On the life and death of Hugo Chavez

With the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on Tuesday 5 March, we’ve seen the passing of perhaps the most controversial political figure of our time. Chavez seemed to be everything for everybody: to the US government he was a buffoonish bete noir, to the corporate press a dictator, to the various Left governments of Latin America a friend, to the liberal commentariat a destroyer of democratic verities, to some Left groupings a neo-Stalinist, to others a reformist, to yet others a revolutionary hero. But perhaps most importantly, Chavez was a hero to the poorest Venezuelans, a symbol for the significant improvements in their lives wrought by the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’.

Chavez was born into dire poverty. As his parents could not afford to raise him, he was sent to live with his grandparents. Chavez joined the military and became a junior officer. There he came into contact with socialist thought and quickly he developed that particular combination of Latin American leftism, a mixture of socialism and revolutionary nationalism. Importantly, Chavez was not alone, but rather was the chief representative of a group of left-wing officers determined to break from official policy.

Though a figurehead throughout his career, Chavez always came to stand in for groups and processes bigger than himself. That he towered so far above them was a reflection not only of his exceptional qualities but also of the weakness of the organisations around him. His charismatic strengths were allowed to flourish and, according to his critics, so were his commandeering tendencies.

Venezuela is unique in Latin America, for despite its subaltern status, it possesses oil wealth that places it in a crucial strategic position. Like South Africa or Brazil, Venezuela is one of those semi-peripheral countries with the greatest potential for stepping out of the circuits of capital. Its oil industry has produced a strong working class, just as it has allowed for relatively rapid social transformation.

Yet before the Bolivarian Revolution, the political structure of Venezuela– a kind of crony capitalism – was beset by the kind of corruption and nepotism of which Chavez was later accused. The social assets went into the purses of the few, leaving a massive urban population living in barrios without basic infrastructure: water or electricity or health care.

The early nineties were a time of neoliberalism in Latin America. Across the continent – just as across the world – governments applied the recipes of privatisation of state assets, market deregulation and the like. In Latin America neoliberalism was combined with a serious economic crisis. The combination of these two factors with Left-wing social movements still breathing, if not triumphant, resulted in a wave of anti-neoliberal resistance.

Venezuela witnessed three days of riots in 1989 against government plans, at the behest of the IMF, to cut food and fuel subsidies and spending on health and education, to privatise state assets and increase gas prices. Traditional organisations and parties proved incapable of confronting the rotting and corrupt political structure.

In 1992, with a layer of Left-wing officers, Chavez organised a failed coup (intended to coincide with a general strike, though the plan later had to be abandoned) against the neoliberal government. Not for the last time, he was lucky to escape with his life. His action – much like that of his predecessor Castro at the Moncada barracks in 1953– captured the imagination of the nation’s poor. This was the beginning of Chavez’s extraordinary personal popularity.

Deciding to operate through more formal channels, six years later Chavez won the presidential election. Thus began the fourteen-year ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, a process that saw vast social infrastructure spending, nationalisation of key national industries, the use of oil wealth (after a long bitter struggle) on vast healthcare and literacy programs for the poor. Chavez understood his political program like this:

The Point of Archimedes, this expression taken from the wonderful book of Istvan Meszaros [Beyond Capital], a communal system of production and of consumption – that is what we are creating, we know we are building this. We have to create a communal system of production and consumption, a new system  … Let us remember that Archimedes said: ‘You give me an intervention point and I will move the world.’ This is the point from which to move the world today.

Chavez allied Venezuela with Cuba, swapping subsidised oil for Cuban doctors (though his attempt to organise an international alliance of anti-imperialists resulted in serious missteps, such as aligning himself with Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad). Venezuelan elites knew immediately that Chavez was a threat to their rule. They organised an oil strike, a massive media barrage and a US backed coup. Again Chavez was lucky to escape with his life.

The victory for ‘Bolivarianism’ allowed a significant restructuring of the armed forces. For some, this was the key moment in the transformation of the Venezuelan state. From then on – these people have argued – state power was in the hands of the working class. Chavez’s death after a two-year battle with cancer leaves the Bolivarian Revolution is a state of uncertainty.

In the hours since his death, there has been a veritable flood of assessments of Chavez; in the days to come there will be more. Indeed, so much has been written that it’s difficult to separate the truth from the lies, to clearly capture both Chavez’s position in the Venezuelan process and the nature of that process itself.

Still, there are some facts that seem incontrovertible.

To begin with, Chavez had claim to being the most democratically mandated global leader. He had survived fourteen national votes; former US President Jimmy Carter described one recent electoral process as the ‘best in the world’. Chavez was a wildly popular leader, mainly because the Bolivarian process has resulted in a significant increase in the material conditions of the poor in Venezuela. It also has developed a wide range of popular institutions of government, described by Greg Grandin in The Nation:

Chávez’s social base was diverse and heterodox, what social scientists in the 1990s began to celebrate as ‘new social movements’, distinct from established trade unions and peasant organizations vertically linked to –and subordinated to – political parties or populist leaders: neighborhood councils; urban and rural homesteaders, feminists, gay and lesbian rights organizations, economic justice activists, environmental coalitions; breakaway unions and the like. It’s these organizations, in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout the region, that have over the last few decades done heroic work in democratizing society, in giving citizens venues to survive the extremes of neoliberalism and to fight against further depredations, turning Latin America into one of the last global bastion of the Enlightenment left.

Without doubt, many of these institutions are fragile, embryonic and outside or dependent on the decisive circuits of power. Indeed, the Bolivarian Revolution is characterised not so much by ‘dictatorial’ politics – though Chavez was at times dictatorial, dismissive of opponents, bullying, lacking checks and balances – but a vast chaotic openness. Venezuela is replete with competing power-groups jockeying for position. A complement of this openness is serious corruption and clientelism – the parcelling out of state revenues by apparatchiks to their supporters.

This threat of corruption is something that all processes of social transformation have to face. Most famously, the Russian Revolution fell prey to the grim-faced despot Stalin, while the elimination of Apartheid in South Africa led less to the liberation of black South Africans but the elevation of a section of them onto corporate boards. Cuba faced its emerging bureaucracy in the Escalante affair (though there are those who doubt it survived at all).

How did Chavez see the process?

Chavez was a deeper theoretical thinker than his theatrical, sometimes clownish, image suggested. He was widely read in the classics. At one point he called himself a Trotskyist, saying he believed in ‘permanent revolution’ (he had been seen reading Trotsky’s famous book), by which he meant that each task of Bolivarianism would open up further possibilities. Thus the entire process would begin to resemble an ongoing sequence of interrelated moments, one leading to the other like so many links in a chain. He understood the difficulties of the process, describing them such:

Here, in Venezuela, let’s not forget that for several years we have been right in the middle of a true organic crisis, a true Gramscian crisis, a historic crisis. That what is dying refuses to die and doesn’t finish dying and that what is being born has not yet been completely born either. We are in the epicentre of the crisis; a good number of the years to come are part of this historic crisis …

Chavez was on the left wing of the Bolivarian Revolution, and he surrounded himself with leftists of irreproachable records. His towering influence allowed him to unify those disparate forces beneath him, again a symptom of his unique qualities and the weaknesses of the process itself. His death removes a key factor keeping that process lurching forward.

From a distance it is difficult to tell how coherent and organised the rest of the Left actually is. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), of which Chavez was the head, is itself plagued with the corruption and clientelism that bedevils the Bolivarian Revolution itself. It is unclear whether Chavez’s successors will be up to facing the grave upcoming challenges. So the future is messy, tricky to assess and difficult to predict. Indeed, any assessment depends on how you see the process up until now.

There are essentially three schools on the Left about the current position of Venezuela and the nature of the so-called ‘revolution’. The first is that from the outset the Bolivarian Revolution was a radical reformist project, a state-run series of reforms containable within capitalism. In this view, Chavismo has been sustainable because the oil wealth allowed it to satisfy both its own reformist program and still allow the co-existence of national capitalism. The second view is that Venezuela had been in a period of extended ‘dual power’, a situation where alternative power structures co-exist uneasily alongside the old and corrupted ones. In these first two views, the situation can only ever be temporary. Sooner or later the political establishment will move against Bolivarianism.

The third view is that Venezuela has essentially broken the power of the former state and instituted new organisations of power. In this reading, Venezuela is some kind of ‘workers’ state’, with existing elements of capitalism to manage, but without an intact state apparatus controlled by the elite and ready to move against the government.

With Chavez’s death, we will learn a great deal more. The Right will escalate their campaigns. Should they return to power (through coup or election) they will again pursue the rampant neoliberalism to which Chavez himself was a response. This would be a disaster for Venezuela’s poor and for the Left of Latin America. Without doubt, Chavez’s death provides more space for the Right to pursue this program. But it also may provide more space for the Left to organise their forces. They have lost the pre-eminent figure of their generation, but that does not mean that the process itself must be reversed. Perhaps they now have a chance to reaffirm that the Bolivarian Revolution is not the work of one man but of the Venezuelan workers and urban poor themselves.

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Hugo Chavez was certainly sincere and passionate about social justice, but I don’t think he chose the best way to reach that goal. Historically, socialism has always been detrimental to the nations it was supposed to help. Besides that, I dont understand why Chavez hated the US with such intensity. By the way, I noticed that countries whose leaders hate the US are most of the times countries where atrocities are commited on a daily basis…

  2. “I noticed that countries whose leaders hate the US are most of the times countries where atrocities are commited on a daily basis…”

    I think the US is responsible for its fair share of atrocities. Rendition, Guantanamo bay, sponsoring coups in countries that don’t agree with it – I think that maybe why Chavez and others didn’t think too highly of it.

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