March 12, 2023

Ten Years after the Death of Hugo Chávez

Vijay Prashad from Caracas

EARLY into his term as the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez reflected on how he had read “a book by Plekhanov a long time ago and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History.” That book, written by the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov and published in 1898, is a reflection on the role of the idea of “great men” driving history forward, and of the rise of individual attacks of terrorism in Russia against the entrenched and wretched Tsarist system. Plekhanov made the case for the building of mass movements to overcome the limitations of capitalism and to establish a socialist system. Chávez had built a mass movement around the fact of the political betrayal of the two major Venezuelan political parties – Acción Democrática and COPEI – and their inability to chart out a path from the grip of the Venezuelan oligarchy and their benefactors in Washington, DC. That mass movement – organised into the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 and then the Movement for the Fifth Republic – galvanised large sections of the Venezuelan people around a practical agenda for change and around the person of Hugo Chávez, seen immediately not so much as a military officer – which he was – but as a man of the people and as a man of immense integrity. “Well,” Chávez said of Plekhanov’s book, “I know that none of us is really indispensable.” Alan Woods, a British Marxist who had been talking to Chávez about these matters, said in response, “There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference.”

Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) made that “fundamental difference.” Born in modest circumstances, Chávez went into the military like many people from his rural, working-poor background. Impressed upon this young man was the long history of his country, particularly its liberation war against the Spanish Empire and the role of Simón Bolívar in building a revolutionary movement against imperialism. The immensity of Bolívar’s impact on the northern parts of South America (Gran Colombia, he called this immense spread of a country from today’s Panama to Peru, from Guyana to Colombia) was significant, an impact that was felt – like the tremor of an earthquake – on the personality and politics of Chávez. Bolívar was betrayed, his revolutionary dreams not able to be fully realised in the nation-states that emerged under the grip of narrow-minded oligarchies. It was this dream that Chávez picked up and it was his motivation to realise this dream in the world that guided Chávez to build networks within the military, make contact with and learn from socialist groups outside the military, read about the socialist experiments from Cuba to the Soviet Union, build up his own confidence in his vision for his country, a path, call it Bolivarianism, not just for Venezuela but for all of Latin America, indeed the world. Disgust with the system hardened after the Caracazo (1989), when working-people across the country – but centered in Caracas – reacted to the betrayal of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had promised not to lift subsidies on fuel, but then did and had to face the wrath of proletarian anger. Chávez – and his closest confidants – attempted an uprising in 1992, which failed; Chávez apologised for the failure, and said that the uprising should be suspended por ahora, for now, a statement that both emphasized his integrity (for taking responsibility) and his optimism (that the struggle would continue and would prevail).

It is remarkable to trace the swift and deep impact Chávez made on Venezuela, on Latin America, and on the world, from his victorious election campaign in 1998 till his death in 2013, a mere fourteen years which elevated him from being the president of Venezuela to an enormously influential and inspirational leader of the international Left. His government took hold of Venezuela’s oil wealth and set in motion two parallel processes: to rapidly diversify the economy (including by establishing the food sovereignty of Venezuela) and to use the oil wealth to rescue collective life to build the basic needs of the people (meeting the long-term challenges of hunger and illiteracy, ill-health and lack of housing). The inspiration of Bolívar meant that Chávez would never be a national politician, driven to meet the scale of Bolívar with a project that he named Bolivarianism, and then, necessarily, he moved from Latin America – through his engagement with Cuban internationalism and socialism – to the world. I first saw Chávez speak at the World Social Forum in Brazil in January 2005, and then subsequently met him in Caracas, catapulted by his personality and his drive into the orbit of his Bolivarian project. It was impossible to meet Hugo Chávez and not feel something, either awe – if you agreed with his project and his values – or great hatred – if you held fast with the oligarchy and with imperialism. The imperialists tried their best to overthrow him (a coup in 2002, hybrid war right through his presidency), but none of these attempts could succeed because Chávez – the Comandante – had rooted himself not merely in ideology but in the actual motion of history, which was represented by a Venezuelan working-class and peasantry in motion and – through the impact of Chávez, Fidel Castro, and others (including Evo Morales of Bolivia and Lula of Brazil) – by the Latin American working-class and peasantry.

Rallies in Venezuela, with Chávez on the stage, represented a social stratum that had been denigrated and exploited by the Venezuelan oligarchy. These were people who looked like Chávez, the mark of their indigenous heritage apparent, their lives at a vast distance from an oligarchy that looked to Miami and Madrid for inspiration. The majority of Venezuelan people became chavistas, a social location that does not mean that they agreed with everything that the Bolivarian Republic did, but that does mean that they did not want to return to pre-1999 Venezuela, to their poverty that erupted in events such as the Caracazo. In my journeys through Venezuela, it was clear that los y las Chavistas were the people, and that when one says El Pueblo in Venezuela, it meant los y las Chavistas, and that even if the people did not vote for Chávez, they were still El Pueblo, the proletariat of his beloved country. It was a stunning feeling to wander through those crowds, to feel the energy and love of the people for Chávez, their absolute identification with them. Conversations with opposition politicians had them bemoaning their inability to move an agenda against this political bloc of Chavismo, which is why the more desperate amongst them phoned Washington, DC, and begged the United States to become their “mass” base.

Every revolutionary process creates a rupture with the past, breaking with older styles of political, economic, and social life. In an interesting double movement, this rupture with the past has to – at the same time – be rooted in the past, must draw from the past and revolutionise that past. Chávez glanced backwards to draw into the present the legacies of Simón Bolívar, Simón Rodríguez (1769-1854), Ezequiel Zamora (1817-1860), whose projects he claimed to want to complete, so that his socialist agenda had not been imposed by him on Venezuela, but it was merely his task to complete a process that had been blocked by the Venezuelan oligarchy. The rupture was with the old ways, the eyes of the people downcast, while the continuities were with the Bolivarian dream which needed to be redeemed. By this double process of recovery and rupture, Chávez was able to establish the socialist project with a great deal of authenticity and by the process of eradicating social ills (hunger, ill-health), he was able to establish the sincerity of the socialist project. It is this double movement that has made the socialist project in Venezuela irreversible.

When we first heard that Chávez had died in 2013, we gathered together in New Delhi (India), a world away from Venezuela, grieving as if a family member had died. Five days later, I joined Venezuela’s ambassador to India – Milena Santana Ramirez – and several others on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at a massive condolence meeting. Chávez had been at JNU in March 2005, during a trip to India, when we had traveled to West Bengal to visit the local self-government project of the Communists. His journey through India in 2005 left a deep impression on the people. I remember well his playful spirit and his genuineness as well as his curiosity about the projects to improve peoples’ lives, ideas that he wanted to take back with him to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people. Viva Chávez, we chanted in 2005, and again, Viva Chávez in 2013. It is hard to describe the way we adopted Chávez, how we claimed him for ourselves, just as we claimed Fidel Castro each time he visited India.

The legacy of Hugo Chávez remains alive in Venezuela, where the tenth anniversary of his death was celebrated with a set of inspiring events. At one of the events, Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, explained how in these ten years the country has had to resist the most vicious attack by US imperialism. Maduro, who emerged into politics as a leader of the bus drivers, is a man of the working-class, deeply loyal to Chávez and committed to the socialist project. Maduro’s task was to ensure that the revolutionary dynamic remained active, an immense task after the death of Chávez, an indispensable leader, after the collapse of oil prices, and in the context of a full-blown war against the Venezuelan economy on all fronts. It is no easy feat to withstand the pressure campaign from Washington, whose antipathy to Maduro has been immense. But the Bolivarian Revolution remains alive, fighting both to survive and to thrive. The dream of Chávez remains as alive as the eternal flame that burns at the 4F monument in Caracas.