Hugo Chavez: A Leader Who Challenged Neo-Liberalism and Washington
Although his death did not come as a surprise, it generated a feeling of innumerable loss, a loss not for only for the poor, marginalized and progressive people in Venezuela but also for the toiling masses all over the world. In the heyday of neo-liberalism, he attacked it and went against it. When people were scared of the US and its aggression against people in Iraq and Afghanistan, he singlehandedly challenged Washington. He was not afraid of defeat and when he felt the warning sign, he became offensive and fought back. He was determined that he would not allow the US imperialists to redo Chile in Venezuela in the 21st Century. In spite of the allegations made by organizations like Human Rights Watch financed by corrupt financiers, he created a new kind of democracy and gave democracy a new meaning. His Bolivarian experiment has generated a glimmer of hope to the poor people in the world. As Tariq Ali correctly characterized him, ‘he was one of the political giants of the post-communist era’.
As soon as the death of the president was known, people began to gather in the Bolivar squares in the centre of cities and towns across the country. They marched towards the Miraflores presidential palace, shouting slogans of defiance, “the people united will never be defeated”, “they shall not be back” and “the struggle continues”. Bolivarian experiment that Hugo Chavez began in 1999 has changed significantly the social, economic and political landscape in Venezuela. The neoliberal policies that Pinochet brutally pioneered in Chile in the 1970s after killing duly elected President Salvador Allende were rolled out across the Latin American continent and in many third world countries from the early 1980s onwards. Venezuelan President Carlos Andrez Perez introduced the WB-IMF backed ‘Great Turn’ based on Washington Consensus at the end of the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1997 the richest 10% of Venezuelans saw their share of national income grow from 22 to 33%. Poverty, inequality and unemployment had increased. The Venezuelan poor responded to the neo-liberal turn with occupations, mass protests and riots popularly known as the Caracazo. It was in this context that Charvez was for the first time democratically elected in 1998. In 2002 he was thrown out by a coup orchestrated by the generals, church leaders and big business and backed by the US. However, Venezuelan people, unlike the Chilean people in 1971, surrounded Miraflores presidential palace and forced the coup leaders to step down once again paying the way for Chavez to come to power. Democracy in the street as well in the polling booth showed that people wanted a change, social transformation, and power to the people. Chavez thus won all the elections he faced despite the fact that many opinion polls manipulated by media conglomerates showed that his opponents had a better chance to defeat him at the elections.
After 2002 coup attempt against his regime, Chavez introduced a radical program of economic change. The rise of oil price contributed him in implementing this program that delivered big improvements to the Venezuelan poor. Housing schemes, subsidized food programs, new medical centers and a literacy program, all organized through popular ‘missions’, made a huge impact on the life of millions of people. Nearly half of the population has regularly received cheap food supplies from the state. As a result poverty has reduced significantly in the last 14 years of Chavez’s rule. Living standard of poor and marginalized people has increased. Popular control has improved through setting up of neighborhood committees and popular control. Austerity and belt-tightening for poor were not in Chavez’s agenda.
All these gains notwithstanding, Chavez refused to use over-inflated phrases to depict his social program. His position, viewpoint and perspective are portrayed best in the following words of Tariq Ali recalling his meeting with Chavez:
‘The following year in Caracas I questioned him further on the Bolívarian project. What could be accomplished? He was very clear; much more so than some of his over-enthusiastic supporters: ''I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labor – and never forget that some of it was slave labor – then I say: 'We part company.' I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don't even like paying taxes. That's one reason they hate me. We said: 'You must pay your taxes.' I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimeter, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias."
It is interesting to note that Chavez’s foreign policy was consistent with his domestic policies and was based on the same principles. He knew very well that the local big business, media giants and his political opponents were not working in isolation. He observed that they were backed and discreetly supported by the US imperialism. In my view, there were two principal pillars in his foreign policy, namely (1) unconditional opposition to US imperialism and aggression; (2) the formation and strengthening of the united front of Latin American countries. He characterized the US as No 1 enemy of the poor and marginalized people in the world. It was not a secret for him that the so-called campaigns for democracy and human rights had been now reduced into techniques of governmentality deployed by the US imperialists and their lackeys. This perspective led to understand the complexity of the new situation in the Arab World. Hence Chavez opposed the US intervention in toto wherever and whenever it was in action. When Obama responding to Chavez’s death informed that the US can now have new kind of engagement with Venezuela, he tried to single out Chavez from the movement he built since 1994. The US imperialists might have thought that the main obstacle for their aggressive policy in Lain and Central America was now removed.
The great women and men cannot be easily replaced. Hugo Chavez was one of the greatest leaders of the 21st Century. The process he initiated in unleashing in Venezuela may not be easy to be turned back. His demise may create a vacuum and ebb in the process. However, his movement brought people into continuous and constant action and intervention. So the specter of Chavez will be alive in future. As Tariq Ali wrote Chavez was an admirable leader. “At a time when the world had fallen silent, when centre-left and centre-right had to struggle hard to find some differences and their politicians had become desiccated machine men obsessed with making money, Chávez lit up the political landscape.”
The writer is a co-coordinator of Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo