Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
Photo: Alborada Films/Flickr
A giant has left us and an intense sadness engulfs Venezuela. A few hours ago it was announced that at the age of 58 Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, lost his near two year battle with cancer and passed away. He joins a celebrated list of Latin American revolutionaries to have gone before their time. However, unlike Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara or Salvador Allende to take just two examples, this time it does not appear that the US government was a culprit in the death of a leader who embodied the region’s mass yearning for social justice and independence from US dominance.
While Chávez’s political opponents were never able to remove him from the presidency democratically, it would appear that in the end it was nature that defeated a man whose anti-imperialism and principled siding with the poor and marginalised in his country and elsewhere, inspired precisely this constituency to defend his government with such passion. “Queremos ver a Chávez!” (We want to see Chávez!) shouted the millions of pro-Chávez supporters that took to the streets in Venezuela in 2002 to demand that he be reinstated as president after a US sponsored coup briefly ousted him. This people power played an instrumental role in his return to the presidency less than 48 hours after he had been kidnapped and taken to an island off Venezuela’s mainland. Theirs was truly a love affair with “their” president, whose support base was to be found in the low-income neighbourhoods known as barrios that encircle Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. It was these people who had, more than any other group, experienced a dramatic improvement in their material conditions. They experienced at first-hand what can happen when a government is prepared to stand up for the poor and marginalised.
In contrast to his popularity at home, Western elites viewed Chávez with a cynical disdain. These sentiments spread to large sectors of the general population, through an anti-Chávez mass media campaign that systematically distorted events in Venezuela. Rather than try to explain Chávez’s appeal to large sectors of the Venezuelan population or understand the process of radical change underway in the country, the West’s media class preferred to focus almost entirely on the figure of Chávez. It was precisely this narrative that was so effective in discrediting the Venezuelan process through concealing the role of collective agency, silencing the people from below, rendering them insignificant.
Nevertheless, Chávez still held a wide appeal beyond Venezuela’s borders, especially in the countries of the global South, who understood all too well what imperialism meant in practice. In Chávez, many saw a genuine leftwing icon, someone with the courage to lead the fight against US imperialism, not only in Latin America but across the world. However, there were those on the left, especially in the West, that displayed an increasing antipathy to Chávez, perhaps the result of the distorted picture of Venezuela generated by the media. Others remained suspicious that a man coming from the military could offer a progressive politics, especially in a continent where the military’s record is steeped in blood. A deeper understanding of the specificities of the Venezuelan case is a prerequisite for purging prejudice.
My own decision to spend a year and half in Venezuela between 2005-2007 was the result of my desire to see for myself what kind of process was unfolding under the Chávez government. What exactly was going on that so provoked the ire of the US government and the Western political and media classes?
I found a country in the midst of intense and profound changes, with a new constitution heralded for its progressive content such as the rights it accorded to traditionally ignored groups such as Venezuela’s indigenous peoples. There were government supported community radio and television stations being run by young people; neighbourhood assemblies that discussed how to “transfer power to the people”; government-subsidised supermarkets in the poorest neighbourhoods (where articles of the constitution were explained in cartoon form on the packaging); a plethora of free cultural festivals and debates about socialism on the streets of Caracas and across the country. All this felt like being transported to another planet, one where social justice and human dignity were a priority. In the midst of all of this was the commanding figure of Chávez, whose leadership qualities and charisma were so evident that no credible domestic opponent could deny them. Such opponents included the (generally white skinned) elite that had traditionally ruled Venezuela, whose fury at their loss of political power was only exacerbated by the gradual erosion of their economic domination of the country. Again the private media was harnessed to fuel the fires of hatred towards Chávez and his government.
Of course Chávez’s charisma was a double-edged sword. It served both to placate divisions between various factions of his movement and energise his followers into action (especially at election time); but it also fed into what was arguably one of the major weaknesses of the Venezuelan process: the over-reliance on Chávez. This, in turn, disincentivised the search for a new or collective leadership. Nevertheless, with Chávez around, the movement for radical change in Venezuela felt, for the most part, irrepressible.
Despite this and other weaknesses, I returned from Venezuela convinced that the country’s ‘Bolivarian’ process was a noble experiment; that at its core it was seeking to create a society where human needs are prioritised over corporate needs. In most of the world this is clearly not the case. For me, Venezuela’s “threat of a good example” is a subversive alternative that is not only challenging neoliberalism and capitalism but is laying the foundations for a 21st Century socialism.
I had the privilege of observing Chávez at close quarters when, as part of the team filming with John Pilger for his documentary ‘The War on Democracy’, we were invited to travel with Chávez for two days. After arriving in Barquisimeto on the presidential plane, we drove through the city in a presidential convoy, where thousands of Venezuelans lined the streets and waved the convoy on. This was a genuine expression of affection for someone they considered one of their own. At the first event, in a massive stadium, I was struck by the patient manner in which Chávez explained what his government was doing. At a further three events that day Chávez explained his government’s vision, using metaphors and a language that resonated with ordinary Venezuelans.
It was these Venezuelans, people like Joel Linares, a community activist and friend, who every day invested their time, energy and passion into building the fairer Venezuela Chávez so often spoke about. “Chávez has given the people back their spirit of struggle. Because the ideas of struggle don’t die” was what Mariela Machado, a nurse and community activist in the La Vega barrio, told me when I asked her what she felt was the biggest change she had experienced under the Chávez goverment.
So as the forces of reaction in Venezuela and abroad get ready to step up their offensive against the Venezuelan process while trying their best to conceal their delight at Chávez’s death, we should remember his true legacy.
Hugo Chávez galvanised the Venezuelan people into taking centre stage in the country’s political process. He was a leader and a teacher but above all someone that demonstrated an unwavering faith in the principle that the people are the best architects of their freedom. In doing so he inspired not only millions of Venezuelans, but millions more around the world who believe in the urgency of building an alternative.
This article was first published by Alborada.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency