The death of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, on March 5 is a momentous and sorrowful event for the Left on a world scale. Chavez was a towering figure on the Left like no other who has come along in decades. What can we say at this point to assess the man and the Bolivarian revolution that he birthed? How do we avoid falling into worship on the one hand or dismissing and demonizing him on the other?
Considering the anti-Chavez slant that fills the US media, we must be clear about the enormous improvements he brought to Venezuela. To list just a few:
- Over the course of his presidency, poverty fell from 55% to 32%. Extreme poverty fell from 23% to 8%.
- Food production dramatically increased, leading to a doubling of food consumption. Infant malnutrition has decreased by 74%.
- The Great Housing Mission is planning to build 3 million new homes by 2019, which will relieve almost all of the longstanding housing shortages in the country.
- Healthcare has gone from being something only the rich can afford to a system of massive grassroots programs that provide free healthcare to the whole population.
But it’s not just in material provisions that the country has seen a transformation. Chavez helped the poor 80% in the country to stand up to the elites who have kept them down for so many years. He particularly identified with his African and indigenous heritage and worked to help the brown majority gain a sense of pride in the face of the intense racism coming from the light-skinned elites. And women have played a massive role in the Bolivarian revolution. As of now 63% of mayors are women, as are 70% of the spokespeople of the communal councils. There have been 38 female ministers in the last 12 years.
Chavez also understood the central need for the political organization of the broad masses themselves in their millions. The term Chavez used to describe this is protagonism, meaning that everyday people must be the authors of their own liberation. He led the creation of a host of organizational forms, most importantly the thousands of neighborhood-level communal councils. Onto these bodies significant power was devolved to promote the political, economic, social, and cultural development of the people at the local level, and to begin to create a counter-power to that of the ruling capitalist class.
Probably the single most earthshaking impact of all that Chavez had was his anti-imperialism. More than any other figure in Latin America, Chavez led the way in dramatically shifting the balance of forces between the US empire and the nations to its south, lands which the US has historically considered its playground. Chavez worked hard to develop a bloc allowing the region’s countries to assert their independence. This opened up political space for regional solidarity and collective resistance to US imperialism on a scale not seen since the US began to dominate Latin America and the Caribbean. Regional institutions like UNASUR and ALBA have taken root, and the US-dominated OAS has been sidelined. Regardless of what happens to the Venezuelan revolution from this point on, Chavez will be remembered in future history books as the man who led the way in breaking the grip of the US empire over the region. The Monroe Doctrine may not yet be dead, but it’s now on life support and gasping for air.
The empire has always hated him for this. The US put a great deal of energy into building up the opposition to Chavez. It was quietly involved in organizing both the 2002 coup attempt and the 2004 PDVSA oil company management strike against him. It has also openly funded his opponents in the presidential elections, in a way that would generate nationwide outrage in the US if a foreign country were to similarly interfere in our country’s elections.
One of the sharpest questions the Bolivarian movement faces is around the country’s dependence on fossil fuel production. Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt contains some of the largest oil reserves in the world. The social programs and economic development that Chavez put into place have been overwhelmingly funded with oil money. Almost alone in the world as the leader of an oil exporting country, Chavez had been vocal in warning about the long-term dangers to the planet and its people of a fossil fuel economy. Yet the dependence of the country on its fossil fuel exports remains basically unchanged. It’s hard to see how the Bolivarian revolution could have gotten as far as it has to date based on a fundamentally different path, but this clearly cannot continue forever. Resolving this bind is one of the greatest challenges the Bolivarian revolution faces now.
The rise of Hugo Chavez was tied in part to special circumstances of his own life and unique conditions in Venezuela. Chavez first built up a base of power as a military officer leading a political movement within the ranks of the military, and then built his reputation among the masses on the basis of a failed attempt in 1992 to overthrow the corrupt neoliberal regime of President Pérez in a coup. Once elected to office on a populist platform, it was in part his support base in the military that protected him from reactionary coup attempts. The one time an outright coup actually was attempted—the US-backed 2002 coup attempt—it was not just the mobilization in the streets of thousands of the masses that protected him, but loyal sections of the military that crucially intervened and foiled the coup. Most revolutionary efforts in other countries will not have this favorable position with respect to the military and will have to develop strategies taking this fact into account.
Overall, Chavez tried to bring into existence the elements necessary for a revolutionary process: he raised mass political consciousness, supported broad mass organizations, and made an attempt to bring a revolutionary party into being by founding the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). While not everything he tried to accomplish was successful, it’s hard to imagine a greater set of achievements from anyone else thrust by history into a similar position.
Now with the death of Chavez, US imperialism will be seeking a way to regain its influence in the region. An election for the next president of the country will take place on April 14. While nobody can really fill the shoes of Chavez, his chosen successor Nicolás Maduro is a very strong leader from a working-class background who is committed to the Bolivarian revolution and who helped found the party that first brought Chavez into power. He will go up against Henrique Capriles, the top figure representing the rich elites in the opposition. A vital task before us here in the US is to prevent our government from interfering in the election and from trying to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution by means of subversion or outright intervention.
Can the Left in Venezuela now evade defeat by reactionary forces which will inevitably be emboldened by the departure of Chavez from the stage? Can they move from the incomplete revolution that came into being under the leadership of Chavez to one that brings it home? Those are the questions revolutionaries in Venezuela and the world over face now. The fact that they are on the table now in that country is something for which the people of the world are deeply and enduringly grateful to Hugo Chavez.Download this piece as a PDF