Chavez didn’t Die; He Multiplied
THE streets of Caracas and other cities in Venezuela were flooded with common people who had come out to solemnly observe the first death anniversary of Hugo Chavez on March 5. The small minority opposed to his legacy continued with its violent protests in scattered upper middle class areas of Caracas and a few cities. The presidents of Cuba and Bolivia, Raul Castro and Evo Morales respectively, had flown to Caracas to be personally present on the occasion of the late leader’s first death anniversary. CHAVEZ: THE MAN WHO REVIVED BOLIVAR In the capital Caracas, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, as the supporters of the late president are known, had worn their trade mark red shirts and massed in the central square to watch the military and civil parades. The walls in the capital and other cities were painted and adorned with banners extolling the late revolutionary leader. The most popular banners were: “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on” and “this government will continue.” Another popular slogan was “Chavez didn’t die, he multiplied.” The opposition has been staging violent protests since the third week of February, demanding the resignation of the democratically elected government of President Nicolas Maduro. They continued with their protests even as an overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan people were commemorating their late leader on the first anniversary of his death. They have continued putting barricades in the few areas where they have support. A police officer and a motorcyclist were killed the day after the Chavez anniversary. Venezuelan authorities have said that the two were killed by snipers firing from rooftops when they were clearing debris thrown by protestors. More than 30 people have been killed so far since the protests erupted in February. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, said that one of the reasons he was in Caracas was to show his solidarity with his Venezuelan counterpart. “It is our duty to defend the elected presidents; we do not accept coup attempts,” Morales said in Caracas. On the occasion of Chavez’s death anniversary, President Maduro led a huge march to the hilltop military museum in Caracas. It was the location where Chavez had dramatically attempted a military led revolt in 1992. His arrest, which was televised live at the time, had made him a national figure in the country. Chavez’s remains are entombed in the museum. Maduro extolled Chavez as the leader who had presided over “the greatest democratisation of political life in the last 200 years of the (Venezuelan) Republic.” Maduro went on to add that history had not witnessed a leader like Chavez “who authentically loved the people, who loved the humble and respected the poor.” In his speeches, Maduro often compared Chavez to Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of South America from colonial rule. “Chavez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar,” Maduro said. PROGRESSIVE REVOLUTION ALL OVER LATIN AMERICA During his time at the helm of affairs, Chavez had tirelessly worked to revive Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America and Caribbean. His visionary efforts have laid the groundwork for a deeper political and economic integration. He had played a crucial role in the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2010. The pan-American regional grouping had pointedly excluded the United States and Canada. The Organisation of American States (OAS) was the most important regional grouping till recently. The OAS, created under American supervision during the cold war days, had expelled Cuba from the grouping after the 1959 revolution. One of the first things Chavez did after coming to power was to create a grouping of like minded countries in the region called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. It has now nine member states, and its goal is to integrate the economies of the member countries and create a single currency. The victory of Chavez and his socialist agenda in Venezuela in 1998 set in motion the progressive “pink revolution” all over Latin America and the Caribbean, making it the region that first decisively turned its back on the neo-liberal global agenda being promoted by the West. Only a few states in the region now remain aligned to Washington. Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with one such country, Panama. President Maduro recalled the Venezuelan ambassador from the country. He accused the right wing government of Panama of interfering in the internal affairs of Venezuela by trying to raise the issue of the ongoing violence, in the OAS at the behest of Washington, Almost all other leaders in the region have issued strong statements backing the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation and criticised the attempts at destabilising a popularly elected government. All the important decisions taken by Chavez when he was the president of Venezuela had had the decisive backing of the Venezuelan people. In all, he went to the electorate 14 times for their mandate in the 14 years he was in power. President Jimmy Carter, whose foundation has monitored elections in over 92 countries, described Venezuela under Chavez as having the best and the freest electoral system in the world. American historian Greg Grandin has noted that, during the Chavez era, participatory democracy had taken roots in all sections of society. Chavez encouraged grassroots organisations and social movements to organise the people in the barrios (slums), workplaces and the long neglected rural areas to fight against neo-liberalism. Richard Gott, in his book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, described Venezuela as a “vanguard” nation under Chavez where race related issues “were being brought out into the open, where the white racist opposition has been most vocal, and where the government has come down decidedly on the side of the blacks and the indigenous people.” Maria Paez Victor, a Venezuelan academic, says that one reason why the government cannot be overthrown by violent means is because the Venezuelan people are now organised into many groups like the communal councils, the communes and thousands of health, security, militia, and sports, educational and cultural committees. “The Bolivarian revolution has fostered, not a mass of people, but an organised organic population that makes decisions about its living conditions along with its government because Venezuela is now a fully functioning participatory democracy,” wrote Paez Victor. RADICALISATION OF VENEZUELAN POLITICS Maduro, whom Chavez named as his successor, is striving to implement the blueprint the late leader envisaged for his country. Maduro likes to describe himself as “the son of Chavez.” President Maduro’s opponents are the representatives of the same elite that staged a short-lived American backed coup in 2002 against Chavez. Chavez emerged much stronger after that incident and went on to lay the foundations of what he described as “21st century socialism” in the country. He effectively took control over the state oil company, PDVSA, and used its revenues for the benefit of the poor for the first time in Venezuelan history. Within two years, Chavez created 100,000 worker owned cooperatives. He also enacted laws that empower local citizens to form community councils to solve their problems without having to approach the central government in Caracas. The radicalisation of Venezuelan politics can be traced to the incident that had taken place 25 years ago. On February 28, 1989 Venezuelans had risen in mass revolt that is popularly referred to as the “Caracazo.” The people had raised the banner of revolt against the neo-liberal policies that were being implemented by the government of Carlos Andres Perez at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank. Those policies had led to high unemployment, low wages and mass discontent. Hundreds of people were killed in that revolt. The political and social impact of that uprising led to the radicalisation of Venezuelan politics and the rise of Hugo Chavez. “The people who were massacred 25 years ago are the revolutionary people that today are constructing Bolivarian socialism that is being consolidated this century. The people broke their bindings and said enough to neo-liberalism,” President Maduro observed on the anniversary of the landmark event in the country’s history. The American sponsored attempts at regime change currently underway in Venezuela are, according to many observers, likely to boomerang on the opposition in ways similar to the events in 2002. Even before sections of the opposition went on the rampage, President Maduro’s popularity ratings were on the upswing. The ruling party had decisively won the local elections in December last year. According to a recent poll conducted by the International Consulting Services (ICS), 85.3 percent of Venezuelans disagree with the protests mounted by sections of the right wing. The economy is not doing as badly as sections of the opposition would like the international community to believe. In the last years of the Chavez presidency, poverty in Venezuela had registered their sharpest decline. It fell by 19 percent in 2013, the sharpest decline in the entire region. Unemployment is at a low six percent. Despite the high inflation rates which to a large extent are due the unscrupulous activities of rich anti government business elites, the quality of life of the average Venezuelan has been steadily improving.