Hugo Chavez came a long way from being a military officer attempting a coup to overthrow Venezuela’s corrupted politico-economic system to leading the “Bolivarian movement” which resulted in massive transformations and support from the Venezuelan people. His death means that his successor has huge shoes to fill, but all indications show that the political space is now prepared to continue Chivismo without Chávez.
Vijay Prashad’s (email@example.com) latest book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South(Verso and LeftWord, 2013), assesses the Bolivarian dynamic in its final chapter.
On February 27, 1989, the people who lived in the slums around Caracas, Venezuela took to the streets against the arbitrary rise in petrol prices. The city was lost to the government, as ordinary people inflicted their anger on a government that seemed to have its Finance Minister on a permanent hotline to the IMF headquarters. The elimination of petrol subsidies for a country that has one of the largest deposits of petroleum seemed beyond reason to people whose budgets had been corralled to the task of national debt-servicing rather than their own humanity. The government of Carlos Andrés Pérez responded with characteristic brutality: over three thousand people are estimated to have been killed in the melee that followed his suspension of crucial constitutional protections to the people and the military response. Soldiers from the same rural and slum backgrounds as the protestors were forced to fire to kill.
The man in charge of the presidential guard at the presidential Miraflores Palace, Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) was in hospital during what came to be called El Caracazo (also Sacudón, the day that shook the country). He returned after the cordite had cleared. His troops told him that they were sickened by the orders to shoot at their own people. Never again, they said to Chávez.
Like most of his troops, Chávez came from the impoverished countryside, from Venezuela’s ilanos, flatlands. His parents were schoolteachers who sent two of their seven children to live with a grandmother, Rosa. Rosa’s Catholicism and the poverty of their lives marked the two boys, Adán and Hugo – the elder would become a physicist and a guerrilla, part of the Partido Revolucionario Venezolano (PRV), whose leader Douglas Bravo took Che Guevara’sfoco strategy to Venezuela; the latter, Hugo, would join the military, as did so many of his childhood friends. There were few avenues for mobility from the flatlands, with the military being the main path for young men. Chávez benefitted from the entry of a nationalistic curriculum into the military and from his encounters with the Peruvian leftist general Juan Velasco Alvarado and with leftist Panamanian general Omar Torrijos. Encounters with the harsh counter-insurgency operations of the military against the guerrillas led Chávez in search of an alternative. He set up the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement as a clandestine unit inside the armed forces. In the early 1980s, Chávez met with Bravo who later recalled,
We did not envisage an immediate uprising, we were clear about that. [We] agreed that unless there was a significant political development in the country – a ‘sense of expectation in the mass of the people’ – nothing much would happen until the military conspirators were senior enough to have command of troops.
After the Caracazo, colonel Chávez put into motion the plots sketched out by his left-wing conspiracy within the military. Operation Zamora, the coup of 1992 failed and Chávez was arrested. Chávez asked to address the people on television to call off the coup. It was a mistake to let him go near a television set. Chávez made two points. First, he took personal responsibility for the event – something unheard of in Venezuelan politics (“I alone shoulder the responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising”). Second, he pointed out that for now, por ahora, the uprising had been suspended. The nature of the coup’s failure raised the stature of Chávez and his co-conspirators. During his two years in Yare prison, with his legal team (led by Cilia Flores, the wife of Chávez’s successor Nicolas Maduro), Chávez worked to build a civilian movement.
Chávez turned to the older currents of the organised Left, including the communists, the social democrats and the guerrillas, and to the working-class leaders, such as the bus driver union head Luís Miquilena (who would found the Patriotic Front based on the energy of the Caracazo). He absorbed the revolutionary heritage of his country, with the three 19th-century rebels anchoring his imagination – Simón Bolivar, Simón Rodríguez and Ezequiel Zamora. It was from Zamora that Chávez drew the three aspects of his ideology: (1) Horror a la oligarquía (Hatred toward the oligarchy); (2) Elección popular (General elections); (3) Tierra y hombres libres (Land and free people). These principles anchored the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200), the political platform for Chávez and his allies.
Released from prison in 1994, Chávez and the MBR-200 earned the support of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) andLa Causa R, two of the main left political formations in Venezuela. The 1998 presidential elections beckoned and Chávez expressed interest in it. These groups all dissolved into a new organization, Movimiento Quinta República(MVR), the movement of the Fifth Republic, and as the election neared all manner of progressive groups and parties came to Chávez’s side, to his Polo Patriótico, the Patriotic Pole. Chávez’s bloc won 56.20 percent of the vote, sending him to Miraflores Palace for the first of three terms (he won a fourth term in October 2012, but died before he could take the helm once more).
Chávez’s victory was a blow to the ruling class, which had not only monopolized political power (and institutionalised it through the puntofijismo system of limiting political competition exclusively to two dominant parties) but it has absorbed the fruits of Venezuela’s oil economy. Subservience to the United States had become habit, which is why the class now turned toward Washington as Chávez begin to build on the momentum of his elections. They would fight Chávez and the Bolivarian movement at every turn, including through a failed coup d’etat attempt in 2002. Washington saw Chávez as the main enemy, and when George W. Bush came to office he turned his gun sights on the Bolivarian revolution. It was Chávez’s victory that opened up the Pink Tide, bringing forth an electoral transformation in Latin America – from military dictatorships and neo-liberal autocracies, the continent now elected one left-wing leader after another. They looked to Chávez for inspiration, as he would in turn look to the resilient example of Cuba’s Fidel Castro for encouragement. It is no wonder that the US government saw Chávez as the principle enemy. In June 2007, US deputy assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Craig Kelly, wrote a confidential memorandum to the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. Kelly outlined the means to limit Chávez’s “influence” and “reassert US leadership in the region.” Chávez, he wrote, is a “formidable foe,” but “he certainly can be taken.” These were ominous words, which showed both how dangerous Chávez was to US hegemony in the region and to what lengths the US and its Venezuelan allies proposed to go against him.
The Bolivarian Movement
Chávez’s Bolivarian movement undertook four kinds of basic reforms in the country:
When Chávez was sworn in 1999, he did so on what he called the “moribund constitution,” one written by the old oligarchy in their image. He called for a constitutional process, through a referendum, to write a new constitution that better reflected the values of his new constituency, the vast mass of the Venezuelan people, the workers and peasants, the Afro-Venezuelans and the Amerindians. An astonishing 88 percent of the population voted for a new constitution. Between 1811 and 1961, Venezuela had twenty-six constitutions, with the oil-oligarchy’s 1961 document lasting for the longest duration, till 1999. Chávez went to the new constituent assembly to remind them of their task:
“Our existing laws are disastrous relics derived from every despotic regime there has ever been, both ancient and modern; let us ensure that this monstrous edifice will collapse and crumble, so that we may construct a temple of justice away from its ruins, and dictate a new Venezuelan legal code under the influence of its sacred inspiration.”
The new constitution enshrined progressive values at its head – women’s rights, human rights, health rights, education rights, employment rights (“Every worker has the right to a sufficient salary that allows a life with dignity and covers his own and his family’s basic material, social, and intellectual necessities”), indigenous rights, environmental rights, and, finally, the right to civil disobedience (“people of Venezuela … disavow any regime, legislation, or authority that contradicts the values, principles, and democratic guarantees or impairment of human rights”).
(2) Control over Oil Wealth.
The new social agenda could not be established without government control over the oil wealth. Venezuela’s far-sighted oil minister of the 1950s, and architect of OPEC, Perez Alfonzo called oil the “devil’s excrement,” the thick sludge that created more inequality despite its lucrativeness. Chávez’s government nationalized the oil company, renegotiated the rent prices (through the 2001 Hydrocarbons Law) and removed the layer of corrupt officialdom from the spigot. The exchequer was able to earn a greater percentage of the royalties from the multi-national oil firms. The oil company set up its own Social Development Fund (Fondespa) to finance schemes for oil workers, their communities and other projects (including the provision of below-market oil sales to comradely countries, such as Cuba, and to poor communities of the United States and Western Europe).
(3) Social Well-Being of the population.
It was because of that oil money that Chávez’s government could increase social spending by 61 percent ($772 billion). But this money was not turned over as individual transfer payments. It was used carefully to harness the social lives of the population. The Chávez government set up various misiones (missions) – along the grain of the rights enshrined in the 1999 constitution. For example, in 2003 the government set up three missions (Robinson, Ribas and Sucre) to send educators into low-income areas to provide free literacy and higher education courses. The Mission Zamora took in hand the process of land reform, and the Mission Vuelta al Campo sought to encourage people to return to the countryside from the slumlands of the cities. Mission Mercal provided low-cost high-quality food to help wean the population off highly processed imported foodstuff, while the Mission Barrio Adentro sought to provide low-cost, high-quality medical care to the working class and poor.
It was through the work of these Missions that Venezuela’s people saw a decline in poverty rates by 37.6% from 1999 to the present (the decline of extreme poverty is stunning: from 16.6% in 1999 to 7% in 2011, a 57.8% decline; if you begin the measurement from 2004, when the Missions had begun to have an impact, the decline is by 70%). Venezuela, one of the harshest unequal social orders prior to 1999, is now one of the least unequal societies; the Gini coefficient dropped by 54%, indicating the impact that these basic social policies have had on everyday life.
From early into his political career, Chávez recognised the importance of a regional solution to South America’s malaise. This is why the central icon was Bolivar, the leader whose military prowess helped liberate the continent from Spain (he is known as The Liberator). Chávez moved to build alliances with the new left-tide in the region, as well as to put pressure on US clients to accede to what had become clear was a new reality: a regional politics with the US on the sidelines.
Chávez led the move to scuttle the US-pushed neoliberal Free Trade Area of the Americas (2005) and replaced that momentum with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) – this would build on the petro-diplomacy of Venezuela (through Petrocaribe and Petrosur) and the trade alliance forged between Venezuela and Cuba (2004). It was to lead to modest monetary linkages, through the BancoSur and the virtual currency, the Sucre. The Chávez regime moved a cultural agenda, through a regional television channel (TeleSur) and exchanges across the hemisphere, to build close people-to-people ties as the human face of the economic arrangements.
By 2010, the unity of the hemisphere culminated in the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which, unlike the Organization of American States (1948), no longer had the United States as a member. ALBA and CELAC underlined the end of US primacy in the region, a consequence of Chávez’s Bolivarian agenda. Even the main US client in the region, Columbia, had to join CELAC much to the chagrin of Washington.
Chávez, like any human being, leaves behind a legacy with several flaws. He is often accused of authoritarianism, a charge that comes from the very ruling clique and its Washington-backers who fostered generations of dictatorship of Property against the people. Nonetheless, a desiccated political landscape in the 1990s thrust Chávez forward as the leader of the new dynamic. His immense charisma, earthy charm and frank disdain for the old ruling classes endeared him to the ordinary people – whose adoration of him was seen often on the streets of Venezuela, whether in the 2002 failed coup against him, during the many election campaigns, and of course after his death. That his successor, Maduro, will have large shoes to fill is a challenge not only for him, but for the Bolivarian movement. All indications show that the political space is now prepared to continue Chivismo without Chávez. It will be a fitting legacy to Chávez if Venezuela can show that it no longer needs him. In Venezuela, they will sing:
como junto a tí seguimos
We will carry on
As we followed you then.
-- Carlos Puebla, “Hasta Siempre, Comandante,” 1965.