The Death and Legacy of Hugo Chávez

Paul Hubbard comments on the passing of the Venezuelan president, the meaning of his legacy, and the significance of the Bolivarian Revolution.

While the vultures on Wall Street and in the US State Department celebrated the death of Hugo Chávez, millions of workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, and the poor stood for hours in lines that stretched for miles to mourn, pay their respects, and honor their beloved leader.

We stand in solidarity with the masses of Venezuela and Latin America and say clearly at the start: the death of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías is a blow, not only to the working classes and poor of Venezuela, but to working people and poor across Latin America and the World. We have to state this unequivocally and without reservation. Yes, Chávez was full of contradictions, his project of “socialism for the 21st century” had many problems, but at heart, Hugo Chávez was a true, honest, and genuine man of the people.

A Short History

Born to working poor parents of indigenous heritage, Chávez originally sought a career in the military, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the army. He first radicalized around the forced neoliberal “reforms” in the late 80s and early 90s, during President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s dictatorship, a regime that murdered thousands of political opponents, union leaders, leftists and Venezuelans, throwing their bodies into mass graves – an all too familiar story in Latin America and the underdeveloped world. Outraged by this, Chávez, then virtually unknown, formed the conspiratorial Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200), and in 1992 attempted a coup against Perez. This was kind of a “Young Turks” movement where young army officers attempt change from above. The coup failed, Chávez was arrested, convicted, and spent two years in prison. Upon release, he formed a social democratic party in 1997 called the Fifth Republic Movement and was elected President of Venezuela in 1998, being reelected several times as President until his death in 2013. He subsequently introduced a new constitution which altered the structure of Venezuelan government and increased rights for marginalized groups, such as the poor, indigenous, peasants, and workers. He was reelected in 2000. During his second term, he introduced a system of Bolivarian Missions, Communal Councils and worker-managed cooperatives, as well as a program of land reform, while nationalizing various key industries. He was reelected in 2006 with over 60% of the vote. That election was monitored by Jimmy Carter (and The Carter Center) and declared the most fair and honest in the hemisphere – certainly more open, fair, diverse, and democratic than anything that presently exists in the US. On October 7, 2012, Chávez won his country’s presidential election for a fourth time, defeating the darling of the elites, Henrique Capriles. During this period he led the Fifth Republic Movement until 2007 when it merged with several other parties to form the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Following a political ideology of his own, a version of what he called Bolivarianism, named after Simón Bolivar, the great 19th century liberator of South America, which he combined with “socialism for the 21st century”, Chávez focused on implementing progressive reforms in the country as a part of a social project known as the Bolivarian Revolution. This included the implementation of a new constitution, participatory democratic councils, and the nationalization of several key industries – oil in particular. His government also implemented free health care for all, free education up to the university level, and programs that resulted in significant reductions in poverty. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America using a UN Human Development Index, under Chávez, Venezuelans’ quality of life improved and the poverty rate fell from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent by 2011, a significant reduction. For these and other reforms, the Chávez government engendered the wrath of the US and the Venezuelan ruling class, whose vitriol against it bordered on hysteria.

Depending on which sources one uses, Venezuela could have as much as the largest reserves of oil in the world (superseding countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc.), but certainly within the top three in the world. Since the international capitalist economy is  dependent on fossil fuels (and oil in particular), one can understand imperialism’s hostility towards a sincere reformer like Chávez. It was largely income from oil exports that Chávez used to implement the above mentioned social reforms. Chávez also started an independent, anti-US-imperialist foreign policy which allied Venezuela with Cuba, significantly reducing the tiny island’s isolation. He made alliances with other so-called “leftist”, progressive governments which were then coming to power in the region – Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Zelaya in Honduras. He tried to export his Bolivarian Socialism for the 21st Century by forming alternative alliances with these various countries such as the pan-regional Union of South American Nations, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the Bank of the South, and the regional television network TeleSur. These were attempts to counter and provide a pole against US imperialism’s historic domination of the region.

Gregory Wilpert of Venezuela Analysis summed it up this way: “He put socialism, the project of socialism back on the map on the world stage. He was one of the driving forces for Latin American integration. And he profoundly changed Venezuelan society, making it a much more egalitarian society than it was before he came into office. … In the economic or socioeconomic scale …the most important thing is having turned Venezuela from being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America to one of the most equal ones, or actually the most equal ones in terms of income. It’s a complete turnaround, and that’s quite dramatic. If you look at statistics about income inequality, Venezuela has now the least income inequality of South America, right after Cuba, in any case.

“And then in the political sphere, I think the most important change was really the democratization and participation of the population, democratization of the polity that took place to a large extent through measures such as the communal councils, people’s participation in social programs, and the introduction of self-managed workplaces and cooperatives and things like that. And so as a result, Venezuela now is considered—or Venezuelans themselves consider their democracy to be one of the most or more democratic than ever. On a scale of one to ten, they now rate their democracy much higher than they did before Chávez than citizens of other countries rate their respective democracies.”

During his tenure, the position and status of women in Venezuela improved, not only through increased education, healthcare, and living standards but in the political sphere as well. Over 65% of the leaders in the Communal Councils are women and women lead four out of the five branches of government.

In April, 2002, during his second term as President, the US engineered a coup attempt in concert with the right wing elites of Venezuela. They kidnapped Chávez, flew him to a secret island location in the Caribbean, and held him for 48 hours for execution. Upon learning of the threat to Chávez’s life, the masses of poor, peasants, indigenous, and workers poured into the streets. They surrounded the presidential palace, and put immense pressure on the wavering palace guard, some of whom had been prepared by Chávez to resist a coup attempt. The guard then put into action a plan to retake the palace, which they did successfully. Some of the coup leaders were arrested, but the main culprits escaped. Within a few hours, Chávez and the elected Venezuelan parliament had been returned to office.

The coup attempt had a radicalizing effect on Chávez, but the event that cemented his left turn was the bosses’ lockout in the critical oil sector of the economy. This threatened, every bit as much as the coup attempt, all that Chávez wanted to achieve. Again, it was the workers who came to the rescue and kept the oil flowing. Chávez then completed the nationalization of the oil industry, forever cementing the hostility of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling classes. Hugo Chávez was harshly criticized in the West as a polarizing figure who deeply divided Venezuelan society. Reality painted, in rather stark terms, a different picture under the former rotating rule of the parties of the elite – the AD and COPEI – one of poverty, illiteracy, and oppression in a dependent country of the Global South chafing under the uneven and combined development of neoliberal capitalism. It wasn’t the Chávez government, but the masses who embraced his Bolivarian project and the opening for democracy his government presented, who upset the apple cart of the rich in Venezuela.

Chávez’s Legacy: A Marxist Analysis

The Chávez government was in many respects like many other social reform and progressive governments we’ve seen dozens of times in dozens of countries in the past, from Allende in Chile, Nassar in Egypt, Arbenz in Guatemala, the first Aristide government in Haiti, even Zeyala in Honduras, but with some critical differences both in circumstances, history, and program.

These governments tend to be highly fluid, contradictory, and ultimately unstable. That’s because they exist in a space between the pressure of the masses from below for ever more thoroughgoing reforms and reactionary imperialism. Chávez was unique in that he skillfully managed to keep the Venezuelan economy within the global capitalist system (he still traded with the US and Europe) while using oil income for social programs and charting a more independent political course in Latin America.

Unlike many of these types of governments which tend to be top-down, the Chávez government opened up space for the participation of the masses in all kinds of experiments in democracy, self-rule, and worker self-management. The more the masses came into political life, the more protected was Chávez’s government, and further progress could be achieved. The space opened up for the masses to enter the political arena in their own name and for their own interests is perhaps the greatest achievement and legacy of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. From what I can tell, Chávez was not corrupt or out to enrich himself, although bureaucratic tendencies in both the PSUV and the old civil service are noticeable and present roadblocks to the further extension of democracy in Venezuela.

The other favorable circumstance for the Chávez government was the weakness of US imperialism in the region which over a period of time had become complacent, overconfident and had “neglected” Latin America. After the 2002 coup attempt failed, the Chávez government was able to exist relatively unmolested because by then the US was bogged down in wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the price of oil on the world’s markets to steeply rise which benefited the Venezuelan economy.

But the fundamental contradiction with the Chavez government still existed in the long term. The masses hadn’t been mobilized in a determined struggle to overturn capitalism and truly transform Venezuelan society. Chávez still relied on the old military, defense minister Admiral Diego Molero and chief strategic operational officer General Wilmer Barrientos and had not moved decisively against international capital, the Venezuelan ruling class or the right wing attached to it.

The state consists of special bodies of armed men serving the interests of one class which dominates all other classes in society. In modern society, the state encompasses not only armed forces, but the police, the courts, prisons, the criminal injustice system, the church, the education system, popular media and other avenues for the transmission of bourgeois ideology, and the civil service bureaucracy.

In order to truly fulfill the promise of the Bolivarian Revolution and socialism for the 21st century, the government would need to take much more radical steps, especially in the economy, starting with the expropriation of all foreign capital. It would have to foster the development of genuine, widespread, armed institutions of workers control (workers’ councils), set up armed popular militias throughout the country, institute a monopoly of foreign trade and investment, expropriate the holdings of the Venezuelan elites and ruling classes, put on trial all who oppose the popular masses, and crush any bourgeois opposition, including in the media. In other words: to achieve a thorough transformation of Venezuelan society will require the mobilization the masses to smash the bourgeois state and extend genuine democracy through workers’ control. In the context of an unevenly and underdeveloped Latin America, dominated by US corporations that are backed by superior military force, any project for genuine transformation would need to look for regional alliances which would encompass a pan-Latin American solution. A critical alliance of a pan-Latin American project of transformation will be the solidarity of the US working class, mobilized in defense of our sisters and brothers in the Latin American south.

The Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez has opened the door. Now the masses have to break it down and push all the way through on the path towards a transition to socialism.

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías – Presenté.

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