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Remembering Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez - Photograph: Wikipedia

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Danesh Chacko reflects on the legacy of the former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, two years after his passing.

Hugo Chavez - Photograph: Wikipedia
Hugo Chavez – Photograph: Wikipedia

Two years ago, on 5 March, the entire progressive and socialist world was given a massive shock when charismatic Venezuelan President Chavez succumbed to cancer.

Chavez is a once-in-50 years phenomenon that jad a deep impact on Venezuela and beyond (previously it was Castro and Guevara from Cuba). Whether you love or loathe him, no can deny the impact of his presidency and government, which made shockwaves in the region.

Of mixed ethnicity heritage, he was different from previous presidents (who tend to represent white European heritage). He grew up under the care of his beloved grandmother, who inspired him with stories of his ancestors fighting in the revolutionary wars.

When he signed up for military college, his political discourse was shaped more by the revolutions in Panama and Peru in the 1970s and his exposure to the ideals of Simon Bolivar (Latin America independence hero), Simon Rodriguez (tutor to Bolivar) and Ezquiel Zamora (revolutionary peasant leader).

Though Venezuela capitalised on its oil boom in the 1970s, the oil wealth historically did not benefit the large poor section of society. With the onset of an oil glut in the 1980s, the middle class began to be decimated and the first stage of neoliberalism was implemented in 1989.

The dramatic rise in oil price (one of the cheapest in world) provoked societal rebellion in 1989 which resulted in up to 3000 killed by government forces. Throughout this period, Chavez built a movement in the army, connecting with waning leftist forces, and the 1989 repression convinced he need to make a dramatic change.

In 1992, he led a civic-military coup against the democratic government of Venezuela to end the hopelessness and repression that was going on. But it quickly failed and most importantly, he took responsibility for the coup fiasco. With his famous words (por ahora – for now) – that he had failed to achieve his objective momentarily – he was thrust forward as the hero of the poor.

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Another coup later in the year and the election of a new government heralded Chavez’s release in 1994. Dropping his military uniforms, he began his election campaign for the 1998 presidential elections.

His election in 1998 brought an end to the dysfunctional two-party system that had governed Venezuela for 40 years. Like many other any Latin American countries, Venezuela was a deeply divided society. A huge wealth gap separated the rich and the poor and this gap was also seen along racial lines.

The Venezuelan poor were systematically hidden away from the eyes of the world (unless you happened to visit Venezuela), excluded and suppressed. One had to visit Caracas, the capital, to view the economic apartheid or segregation that Venezuela had to overcome. The upper class still live in their fortresses – walled compounds with barbed wires. Venezuela still has two worlds, one for the rich and one of the poor – literally next to each other.

Chavez inherited a Venezuela that glorified white supremacy and demonised non-whites such as Afro-Venezuelans and the indigeneous people.

Chavez’s gigantic impact was not so much due to his charisma but his efforts to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

Once elected, Chavez led the Bolivarian revolution to make sweeping changes in the country. One of the first major steps in the remaking of Venezuela was rewriting the constitution. This is Chavez’s lasting legacy; his administration created five branches of government (instead of three).

Critically, it meant the Electoral Council is now a totally independent branch. Today, Venezuela has one of the most advanced, secured and accessible election systems in the world.

More than granting political rights, the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 made health care and education free, upheld women’s rights, promoted the transition to a participatory democracy and an economy that encouraged small- and medium-size businesses.

From the platform of one of the most progressive constitutions, Venezuelan dramatically reduced poverty and illiteracy and witnessed a positive rise in health care indicators.

To fulfill the aims of the constitution and Millenium Development goals, the Chavez government reasserted its authority over a largely autonomous state oil company (critical as Venezuela is super dependent on oil reserves) and stepped up tax revenue collection.

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Chavez personally brought Opec together to bring about a fair oil price for the benefit of member states. But these changes provoked a severe backlash from the existing elites and oligopolies of Venezuela.

Changes to the oil sector provoked the right-wing section of the military and opposition to launch a failed coup in 2002. The Venezuelan poor and loyalist military quickly smashed the coup. Chavez surprisingly gave a chance to the coup-plotting opposition to turn around.

Later in the year, the state oil company staged an economic lockdown which resulted in the worst Venezuelan crisis in many years. But with loyalist workers coming to the rescue, the oil lockout collapsed, and Venezuela capitalised on a dramatic economic boom.

Meantime, Chavez began to implement his vision of a multipolar world to resist United States domination across the world. He spearheaded the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was dubbed as the planned annexation of Latin American economies.

He created regional alliances in Latin America and strategic partnerships with Russia, China and beyond. He could well be the most travelled Latin American leader in modern history. This diversification of alliances was part of his plan to steer away from American dependency in economics, politics and the military arena.

As the revolution began to deepen, the people took more a protagonist role in shaping their destiny. In the entrenched media’s propaganda warfare, the distorted view presented was that the revolution equals Chavez.

As Chavez took a significant left turn since 2005, the transition to participatory democracy and the growing workers’ control movement started to rattle the country more. Chavistas (supporters of Chavez) increasingly took ownership of their revolution and their destiny. They did acknowledge and were grateful for the presence of Chavez, but constantly reminded their audience that the people are the revolution (not Chavez)

Although Chavez is hailed as hero of poor and the left movements, he became a detestable figure in Venezuelan opposition circles, the international media and most importantly, in the United States. The deepening Venezuelan revolution meant the power relations between the rich and the poor were changing like never before. Venezuela’s dominant private media constantly warred with Chavez’s government and labelled him a dictator and tyrant.

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Though Venezuela was historically divided, Chavez’s policies made this division so apparent on the international stage. His government policy of expropriating business, currency controls and price controls led many middle-class Venezuelan to emigrate and made business functions difficult.

The Chavez government was constantly under attack through coups, US-supported opposition-aligned NGOs, sabotages and threats of assassinations. Despite Venezuela having one of the lowest inequality levels in Latin America, rampant crime did not decline.

Corruption in the Venezuelan government (sometimes via the misuse of funds in participatory democracy mechanisms) remains unabated. The abolition of term limits for all elected offices raised concerns among the opposition.

Though he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Chavez continued with his full dedication to the revolution. But this became more of an issue when he won the presidential election on 7 October 2012. His cancer took a turn for the worse later that year. Realising the end was near, he urged his supporters to vote for Maduro, the vice-president.

Chavez was physically unable to attend his own inauguration on 10 January 2013 and finally succumbed at 4.25pm on 5 March. Millions of supporters, some having travelled for days, came to pay their last respects. This was a leader who had personal impact on every Venezuelan for good or for bad.

His super-lengthy speeches, jokes and songs are truly missed. The Venezuela story is continuing with what Chavez started in the revolution.

In the end, though, we need to understand this saying, “Chavez is a great revolutionary but he ain’t the revolution. The people of Venezuela are the revolution.”

Danesh Chacko, a Malaysian activist based in Australia, is a regular reader of Aliran who is interested in electoral and social justice issues.

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