Libertarian reflections on the death of Hugo Chávez
Libertarian reflections on the death of Hugo Chávez
Late this afternoon Nicolás Maduro, on behalf of the government of Venezuela, informed the country and the world of some news which though not unexpected nevertheless came as a shock: Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías had died.
We will no longer see one of the most important men in Latin America in the last decade. It is impossible not to be somewhat shaken by this fact. We do not doubt that they will be celebrating with the most expensive champagne in Chacao . Naturally that is not our feeling, nor is it that of the Venezuelan masses. We can only feel solidarity with them in their sense of grief over the passing of one who in recent years was their undisputed leader and benchmark for the popular movement across the continent.
A little history
February 27 last was another anniversary of the “Caracazo”, the popular insurrection, the rebellion of the poorest of the poor in the urban fringes, those forever excluded, those whose repression at the hands of the (supposed) social democrat government Carlos Andrés Pérez was the beginning of the end of a Fourth Republic that drowned in its own vomit after a binge of petrodollars, corruption, privatization among friends, cronyism, subservience to transnational capital and the political, economic, social and cultural exclusion of the majority of the country.
The repression, which resulted in thousands of deaths, caused the people to temporarily leave the streets. But they never wanted to leave the stage of Venezuelan history. Of course, the insurrection was not born from nothing. The distance between the official country and the real country, the country of those above and the country of the common people, grew wider and wider. Popular organization in the countryside and in the cities seethed, the left advanced, the embers of the insurgency were not forgotten, growing hatred towards all that the Fourth Republic meant. A hatred which, having accumulated subterraneously through a thousand and one humiliations, one day surfaced as an erupting volcano.
In the barracks, more and more children of the people were becoming aware of what they really were. Of their origins, of their class, of the role they were being called on to play in the life of the nation. When on 27 February 1989 the Armed Forces were called to defend the corrupt, hypocritical, hunger-creating government with fire and sword, a government which over those days would prove to be a ruthless murderer, the most advanced sectors of the Armed Forces, which had begun to come together in the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, saw the rot had reached such an extent that it was necessary to act. One young officer would become its leader – Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, a zambo , a provincial of popular extraction, educated a school which was one of the most egalitarian and least influenced by the School of the Americas across the continent.
Three years later, on 4 February 1992, they would try to bring down a hated regime with blood on its hands which, with all the means at its disposal, was refusing to die. They failed. But we know that there are such things as Pyrrhic victories that eventually become defeats, and failures that are just the prelude to future victories. And this was the case. After being captured, Hugo Chávez appeared on national television, beaten but not defeated, uttering the famous “… for now” that turned him into a point of reference for thousands, transforming a tactical defeat into a strategic victory. His enemies wanted the cameras to show him defeated and humiliated, publicly demonstrating his surrender, but he turned the situation around, taking advantage of it to launch a plea for political and social change and giving hope to millions of Venezuelans.
During his years in prison his prestige among the masses only grew and after his release he became a prominent factor in the regroupment of the left, around his standing for election. Chávez was no longer just a rebel officer, he was the repository of the hopes of an entire nation, a people, organized, encouraged and empowered by the parties of the Left. They never stopped thinking and mobilizing for their heartfelt demands, demands they were partially able to obtain in 1999 with the Bolivarian Constitution and through the work of government from then until today. We shall not dwell much on this point, since there is no shortage of information about the substantial improvements in the indices of human development, the increased levels of popular access to education, transportation, healthcare and pensions, the recovery of public control over the economy, the attack on the oil bureaucracy, controls on the banks, the concerns over food sovereignty, the efforts to leave the rentier model and move towards a productive and diversified economy. And, quite outstandingly, by ushering in a new geopolitical architecture.
Chávez and Latin America
During the years that Chávez was at the forefront of his government, Venezuela never shrank from international solidarity. With Cuba, helping to break their isolation, efforts that culminated in its joining, as it should, the community of American nations with full rights, the Washington´s OAS being increasingly considered irrelevant. With Haiti, and the example of selfless and practical cooperation, of a technical, truly humane nature contrasting with the military intervention and the petty, contemptible interest of other States in the region, including some with supposedly progressive governments. With the battles for peace with social justice in Colombia. With the understanding, integration and political, energey, military, financial and food sovereignty, in other words, of Latin America and its relationship as equals with the rest of the world.
In this field, as in others, all the shortcomings, omissions and errors that we could see in his work (and of course there were some) are dwarfed when compared to his achievements, openings and successes. In retrospect, the overall balance is more than positive.
The Chávez government extended the limits of the possible, both nationally and internationally. Who could have imagined the CELAC  (with Cuba presiding!) in 1998, when Chávez won his first elections? The OAS ignored and bypassed? A continental axis like ALBA or UNASUR ? Economic measures running counter to the neo-liberal orthodoxy? Sovereignty over natural resources? Regulations on the sacrosanct market against the wishes of the oligarchies who benefit from it? Socialism back in the political vocabulary? Washington’s military doctrine increasingly cornered into its barracks?
We are not fetishists nor do we believe in providential figures in history. We are materialists, aware that history is written by the people. But we cannot overlook nor underestimate the importance that certain people have in the march of events, either through their charisma, their ability to work or both. And the importance of the work that Chávez has developed in the government of Venezuela in favour of Latin American integration and the empowerment of its people is undeniable.
The Venezuelan people are not the same as they were under the Fourth Republic. They are more politicized and organized. They are aware of how much they have gained in recent years and, therefore, of what can be lost. Neo-liberalism and its champions are no longer the political centre, which has shifted markedly to the left. The axis on which the public agenda turns is no longer the same – this can be seen in the fact that even the opposition candidate, a rich kid with a clearly right-wing past, had to dress up for the occasion as a social democrat and compared himself with Lula in order not to obtain ridiculous results at the polls.
The best cadres of the Bolivarian process are among those from below who helped to trigger everything, its greatest asset are these mixed-race people, rebellious, creative, who express themselves in a multitude of ways, inside and outside the “Chavista” structures, in the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora, in the poor townships, in the alternative media, in the class-struggle trade unions, in the people in arms, in the struggle for public spaces, for the oil surplus, for national sovereignty, for culture, water, land, for health, for a decent life and Popular Power. With or without Chávez they will go on, because the struggle of the Venezuelan people did not begin or end with his death.
What does cause concern, however, is the excessive personalization of the process of change. The Bolivarian process should consolidate itself into a collective leadership if it is not to perish in the struggle for the legacy of the late president. The challenge is to be really a process and Boliviarian and not only structure and “Chavism”. Also worrying is the excessive conformity to the parameters of the old State, which – we do not forget – was not destroyed but reformed, and within which both the old and the new coexist: the old judiciary, the old business network, the old politics, the old media, the old academics and intellectuals, the old habits, prejudices and structures, and although some are changing for the better, others remain or are even getting stronger. Both inside and outside “Chavism”. And you have to be aware that all that glitters is not gold. Any government can attract to itself not to people with a vocation for public service, but also “climbers”, bloodsuckers and freeloaders, in number and degree proportional to the privileges and “helping hands” they can get. And there is no doubt that almost 15 years in office, and in a society of rentier, clientelist and bureaucratic capitalism, have consequences in the form of sell-outs, nepotism and all sorts of favoritism.
Mind you, our criticism is not the type that attacks without proposing, which simply negates and which proposes only isolation as an alternative. The sort which through an excess of zeal just serves to demoralize and disarm in the face of the enemy. The sort which lacks a feeling sense of history that says that “all governments are equal”. No. We know that you cannot expect to be immune to your surroundings and come out clean and immaculate and spend when it comes to disputing hegemony and when the scenario you have to fight in is not one that you choose but is chosen for you and the enemy has been moulding it to his advantage for generations.
But that should not lead us into justifying the unjustifiable or into cynicism and “going with the flow” in the name of some sort of political pragmatism. It should lead but to working harder to develop effective tools with which to continue creating opportunities to conquer the plebeian world and win hegemony from the ruling classes: strong, independent and lively grassroots organizations against cooptation, cronyism and pork-barreling; extensive debate against the tendency to decide between four walls; social participation against unilateralism and orders and commands; popular election of candidates and official positions against nominated appointments; socialist values versus capitalist vices, responsibilities against privileges; the new against the old…
These are the attitudes, practices and tendencies that will have to spread to all levels if Chavez’ death is not to be just a party for the bourgeoisie and instead only another – undoubtedly painful – episode in the upward march of the Venezuelan people to higher levels of sovereignty and well-being.
Santiago de Chile, 5 March 2013
Translation by FdCA – International Relations Office.
1. A rich neighbourhood in Caracas.
2. Half Amerindian, half African.
3. Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a bloc consisting of 33 American countries created in 2011 with the aim of increasing integration in the Americas and reducing the influence of the USA.
4. Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, consisting of 8 Central and South American countries. The ALBA is working towards developing a common currency, the sucre.
5. Union of South American Nations, modelled on the EU and consisting of 12 member states.