Comandante Chavez: socialist, internationalist, revolutionary

Comandante Chavez: socialist, internationalist, revolutionary

28 July 1954–5 March 2013

‘I am convinced that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism – that is the path to hell. The path is socialism.’

The death of Hugo Chavez, socialist leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, sent a shock wave around the world. The millions of Venezuelans who gathered across their country in mourning, with shouts of ‘Chaves lives, the struggle continues!’, had their counterparts not just across Latin America – where many flags few at half mast and national days of mourning were announced – but in Haiti, in Palestine, in the Philippines, across Europe and even in parts of the United States. Twenty-two heads of state and 50 international delegations attended Chavez’s state funeral on 8 March.

So overwhelming was the popular outpouring of grief and solidarity amongst the oppressed that even Chavez’s enemies were forced to acknowledge his achievements. Former US President Carter described ‘the gains made for the poor and vulnerable…I never doubted Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his countrymen.’ The United Nations issued an official statement of condolence, with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon citing the aid offered to Haiti by Venezuela after the 2010 earthquake, Chavez’s vital role in negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, ‘in promoting the unity of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean’, and ‘his ability to connect at a human level with the most vulnerable and give voice to their aspirations’.

Chavez was a political giant, under whose leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution the lives of ordinary working class Venezuelans were transformed. Born into a relatively poor, mixed-race family in Barinas, western Venezuela in 1954, he joined the army at 17, becoming an officer four years later. He became radicalised through reading Che Guevara and the vision of pan-American unity of the great 19th century Latin American liberator, Simon Bolivar.

These were times of political ferment – of an increasing chasm between rich and poor, presided over by a corrupt and entrenched bipartite government known as the Punto Fijo. The economic crisis of the 1980s, brought about by plummeting oil prices, massive IMF loans, rapidly rising unemployment and falling living standards brought about inevitable political resistance. It was met with brutal repression – torture, extrajudicial killings and massacres, culminating in the Caracazo riots of 1989; thousands were killed in the crackdown that followed. Chavez formed a secret society within the army, and in 1992 launched a military coup. It failed – ‘for now’, as Chavez said - and he was imprisoned, but not before he had appeared on national television to set out his vision of social justice for the country. Released in 1994, he immediately visited Cuba and met President Fidel Castro, the beginning of an alliance that would shape the politics of the region over the next two decades. Fidel Castro paid tribute to Chavez as ‘the best friend the Cuban people have had in the course of their history’.

Hugo Chavez won the 1998 presidential elections by a landslide, and immediately set about producing a new, democratic constitution for the country, agreed by popular referendum in 1999. Standing for election under the new constitution in 2000, he was re-elected by a big majority – as he would be again in 2006 and 2012.

His vision of a socialism for the 21st century took shape, with the expropriation of multinationals, the taking over of land for those who worked it, the challenging of the elite bourgeoisie and, especially, the battle to put the national PDVSA oil company under state control, in order to divert the country’s vast oil wealth into public projects. In response the bourgeoisie and its imperialist allies organised to fight back. The 2002 coup, orchestrated by the United States, was defeated when the working class poured out of the barrios of Caracas in their thousands to defend their president, alongside loyal sections of the military, and the Bolivarian project was deepened.

In the last ten years, with the help of Cuban medical and teaching staff, working through local misiones, Venezuela has achieved the lowest levels of inequality in the region; it has wiped out illiteracy, brought infant mortality down from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000 live births, slashed levels of extreme poverty, provided free health care and education for all, built hundreds of thousands of houses and developed thousands of social projects. People’s power, a real transformative democracy of the working class, is being built through socialist comunas (see p8).

On the world stage, Hugo Chavez challenged the inequality, hypocrisy and brutality of a world dominated by the interests of imperialism. He built first with Cuba and then, through ALBA, launched in 2004, more widely through Latin America, to challenge the hegemony of the United States. Organisations like CELAC, UNASUR and Petrocaribe – which provides 250,000 barrels of oil a day to 17 countries at preferential prices – form the beginning of a new anti-imperialist bloc. He condemned imperialism’s war in Afghanistan in 2001, as ‘fighting terror with terror’; at the UN he famously likened George Bush to the devil, remarking: ‘It still smells of sulphur here’, and dismissed British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair as ‘a pawn of imperialism’.

In 2009 he expelled the Israeli ambassador after the Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza, accusing Israel of perpetrating a ‘new holocaust’ against the Palestinian people. At a vigil to mourn Chavez in Gaza, he was described as ‘a better friend to the Palestinians than any Arab leader ever was’. Along with Cuba, he denounced imperialism’s attacks on Libya and Syria and its threats against Iran.

Inevitably, he attracted the unswerving hatred of Venezuela’s middle classes and their backers in the US and Europe. No condolences from US President Obama – just menacing hopes for a ‘new chapter’ in Venezuelan politics. And even in death, the vitriol of the international bourgeois press has continued, including in the so-called ‘liberal’ press. The British Guardian, for example, once again hired the discredited anti-Chavez journalists Rory Carroll and Phil Gunson – the latter widely criticised for promoting pro-opposition lies in his coverage of the 2002 coup – to denigrate the achievements of Venezuela under Chavez. The big lie – that without Chavez there can be no Bolivarian Revolution, that it lives or dies with him – was propagated.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the mass popular support Chavez enjoyed as the living embodiment of the aspirations of the Venezuelan people, the Bolivarian Revolution has never been about just one man. It is a revolution being made day by day by millions of Venezuelans, conscious and organised in their communities, fighting to transform society from one of neoliberal exploitation, hunger, sickness and poverty for the majority, to one built on the model of collective, socialist organisation and production. And in that conscious struggle the spirit of Hugo Chavez lives on.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013