One of the great figures of the 21st Century has died.
At a time of universal mediocrity and ubiquitous buy-in to neoliberal orthodoxy, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood out amongst politicians as a massive personality of independence, principle and courage.
He didn't just speak about socialism and social justice, he ensured his successive governments delivered measures that genuinely improved the lives of millions of people in his country, particularly the poorest. His charisma and radicalism was such that it is no exaggeration to say his example helped produce progressive governments and movements across the region.
His galvanising presence and his left wing politics were themselves the product of a widespread grassroots radicalisation. The neoliberal policies that Pinochet brutally pioneered in Chile in the 1970s were rolled out accross the continent from the early 1980s onwards. Venezuelan President Carlos Andrez Perez broke with his corporatist past to introduce the IMF backed 'Great Turn' at the end of the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1997 the richest 10 per cent of Venezuelans saw their share of national income grow from 22 to 33 per cent. The Venezuelan poor responded to the turn to with occupations, mass protests and riots popularly known as the Caracazo.
Inspired by this movement, the young Hugo Chavez, then a junior officer in the Venezuelan army, launched a long-prepared coup attempt in 1992. The coup had popular support, but was headed off by the Perez government. On his arrest Chavez made a characteristically courageous statement, "unfortunately" he said, "for the moment the objectives that we set ourselves have not been achieved … New possibilities will arise and the country will be able to move definitely towards a better future." Instantly the red beret of Chavez's parachute regiment and the phrase 'for the moment' became symbols of resistance amongst the country's poor.
The failed coup destabilised the regime. The left grew and the ruling class was internally divided. Chavez was released from prison in 1994 when he launched the Fifth Republic Movement which contested and won the 1998 election, making him, the son of low-paid teachers, the symbol of opposition to U.S. imposed austerity, a president. Unlike so many progressive leaders, Chavez moved left once in office.
One of the turning points was the 2002 coup attempt against his government. The coup was orchestrated by generals, church leaders and big business, co-ordinated partly by the Venezuelan media and discreetly backed by the U.S. Chavez was whisked off to captivity in a helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace. But the coup was blocked by a spontaneous mobilization of tens of thousands of barrio dwellers. In scenes wonderfully recorded in the documentary Inside the Coup, they laid siege to the presidential palace where the coup leaders and their hangers on were celebrating. As the crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands the mood in the palace turned, and Chavez was delivered back in the same helicopter, to the joy of the crowds.
A second coup attempt at the end of the year was linked to a bosses lockout of the oil industry. This led to a mass workers movement that re-established government control of the industry.
Following these events, and benefiting from the rising price of oil, Chavez launched a series of social programmes that delivered big improvements to the Venezuelan poor. Housing schemes, subsidised food programmes, new medical centres and a literacy programme, all organised through popular 'missions,' made a huge impact on the life of millions of people. Nearly half the population at different times for example have regularly received cheap food supplies from the state.
The talk now in the mainstream media is about a regime ruthlessly centralised around the president. Unsurprisingly Chavez took many measures to secure himself from moves against him. But the secret of his political success lay elsewhere. Visiting the Venezuela of what he called the Bolivarian Revolution was to experience something exceptional in today's neoliberal world, a country in which ordinary people genuinely admired, respected and often revered their leader. He had immense energy and enthusiasm which he showed off to great effect in his epic TV show 'Alo Presidente' in which he sang, read and told jokes and stories literally for hours on end. To say he had a popular touch is a gross understatement. But he also had a deep interest in radical politics and the international movements.
I met him in 2006 as one of a delegation of international anti-war activists. Characteristically he had helped enable Caracas to host the World Social Forum, a huge international anti-globalization gathering. He spoke with us for nearly an hour about socialism, the history of the U.S. labour movement, the ideas of Chomsky, the peasant question in Latin America and much, much more. He had a real grasp of the dynamics of imperialism, recognising with a certain humility that the war in Iraq, and the opposition to it, were key factors holding the U.S. back from intervening against his government.
All the media chatter about authoritarianism founders on the simple fact that Chavez won more elections than any other contemporary leader anywhere in the world. His support ran deep right up to the end of his life. Last December his party won the local elections in almost all the governorships. Even the most rabidly right wing journalists are having to admit that his loyal Vice President Nicolas Maduro will be a shoo-in in the upcoming elections.
Chavez's social programmes were based on massive oil revenues. His pro-poor policies undoubtedly generated fear and hatred amongst much of the business elite, although he never moved decisively against them. The constant maneuvering and plotting of the right lent his long presidency a tension and uncertainty. When we met him, he explained that the well fortified Presidential Palace was the only place in Caracas that was really safe for him to work in.
But however unstable his government was, the right failed to break him because of his connection with the poor and the working class. Chavez was a president who was kept in office by a popular sentiment and solidarity that periodically emerged as a mass movement. The job of finishing off the transformation of Venezuelan society remains and the future will have to be fought over.
But Chavez put to shame all the so called progressive leaders around the world who hide behind fabricated public opinion to justify embracing the market and moving to the right. He proved that radical policies work and win support. He showed that defiance of U.S. imperialism is possible and popular. He will be missed in every corner of the globe.
Chris Nineham is an author and activist who writes for Counterfire, where this article first appeared.
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