On live television, Venezuelan vice president Nicolás Maduro choked on his words. Hugo Chávez had died of cancer. To his wealthy and light-skinned enemies he was evil incarnate. To many impoverished Venezuelans, his contradictory and eclectic ideology – drawing on the thought of 19th-century Simón Bolívar and Ezequiel Zamora, 20th-century left-military nationalism and anti-imperialism, Soviet-inflected, bureaucratic Cuban socialism, social Christianity, pragmatic interventionist economics, and currents of socialism-from-below – made a good deal of sense, at least insofar as he had come from origins like theirs and had made the right sort of enemies.
For sound reasons, the international legacy of the Venezuelan president for sections of the left has been tarnished by his appalling support for Gaddafi, al-Assad, Ahmadinejad and the Chinese state. But to begin there for an understanding of the profound resonance of his death for the millions upon millions of Venezuelan and Latin American victims of colonial rule, capitalist exploitation and imperial humiliation would be to resolutely miss the point.
This incomprehension is nowhere more evident than in the reporting of Rory Carroll, whose dystopian fantasies about the life and times of Venezuela since 1999 have found their unmitigated expression in the pages of the Guardian, New York Times, and New Statesman, among others, over the past few weeks. For Carroll, the Venezuelan popular classes have been the mute and manipulated playthings of the ‘elected autocrat’, whose life in turn is reducible to one part clown, one part monster. The idea that Chávez is the result of Chavismo – a pervasive groundswell of demands for social change, national liberation and deeper democracy – becomes a fraud. ‘We created Chávez!’ – a popular delusion.
‘As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history,’ Barack Obama said in response to the death of Chávez, ‘the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights,’ all implicitly absent in the South American country. Although disingenuous in the extreme, this was still more measured than Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s comments in 2009, just prior to a Summit of the Americas meeting. There he noted that Chávez was representative of certain leftist leaders in the western hemisphere who were ‘opposed to basically sound economic policies, want to go back to cold war socialism . . . want to turn back the clock on the democratic progress that’s been made in the hemisphere.’
Mark Weisbrot, a US-based economist with a long record of policy work for Latin America governments, once complained that Venezuela ‘is probably the most lied-about country in the world’. In 14 years Chávez won 14 national electoral contests of different varieties, coming out securely on top of 13 of them. According to Jimmy Carter, former US president, Nobel Prize winner and monitor of 92 elections worldwide in his capacity as director of the Carter Center, these Venezuelan contests were the ‘best in the world’.
In the 2006 presidential race, it was opposition candidate Manuel Rosales who engaged in petty bids of clientelism aimed at securing the votes of the poor. Most notoriously, he offered $US450 per month to three million impoverished Venezuelans on personal black credit cards as part of a plan called Mi Negra. In what his right‑wing critics could only understand as a rare act of agency, the ungrateful would-be recipients apparently aligned themselves on the other side of history, backing Chávez with 62 percent of the vote.
The ‘suppressed media’ mantra is another favourite of the opposition. In one representative report, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that the heavy hand of the Chávez government wielded control over a ‘media empire’. In fact, as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, Venezuelan state TV reaches ‘only about 5-8 per cent of the country’s audience. Of course, Chávez can interrupt normal programming with his speeches (under a law that predates his administration), and regularly does so. But the opposition still has most of the media, including radio and print media – not to mention most of the wealth and income of the country.’
At its root, explaining support for Chávez among the lower orders involves neither the complexity of quantum mechanics nor the pop-psychological theory of masses entranced by a charismatic leader. Venezuela sits on oil. Other petro-states, such as those in the Gulf, have funnelled the rent into a grotesque pageantry of the rich – skyscrapers, theme parks and artificial archipelagos – built on the backs of indentured South Asian migrant labourers. They’ve done so, moreover, while aligning geopolitically with the US Empire – backing the wars and containing the Arab uprisings. The Venezuelan state in the past 14 years has been forced into different priorities.
After the relative modesty of state policy between 1999 and 2002, the extra-legal whip of the right – an unsuccessful coup attempt and business-led oil lockout – lit a fire of self-organisation in the poor urban barrios of Caracas and elsewhere. The empty shell of Chávez’s electoral coalition in the early years began to be filled out and driven forward in dialectical relation to the spike in organisational capacity from below in the years immediately following 2003. New forms of popular assembly, rank-and-file efforts in the labour movement, experiments in workers’ control, communal councils and communes increasingly gave Venezuelan democracy life and body for the first time in decades, perhaps ever. The dispossessed were solidly aligned with Chávez in opposition to the domestic escualidos (the squalid ones who supported the coup), and ranged against the multi-faceted machinations of US intervention and the pressures of international capital. And they were also rapidly transcending the timid confines of government policy.
From above, more state resources consequently began to flow, feeding an expanding array of parallel health and education systems for the poor. According to official national statistics, the cash income poverty level fell by more than a third under Chávez, from 42.8 per cent of households in 1999 to 26.7 per cent in 2012. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.6 to 7 per cent between 1999 and 2011. If these income poverty measures are expanded to include welfare improvements such as the doubling in college enrolment since 2004, new access to health care for millions (with the help of Cuban doctors) and extensive housing subsidies for the poor, it is easy to see how Carroll’s narrative of decay breaks down. This backdrop provides a reasoned explanation for the red tide of mourners. But it doesn’t explain the challenges ahead, and a left that stops here cedes unnecessary ground to thermidorian reaction.
Assuming Maduro’s victory over the right in forthcoming elections, the pragmatic balancing of contradictory elements within the Bolivarian process that Chávez managed to sustain is likely to be much more difficult. The game, ultimately, is not a virtuous circle of mutuality, but a zero-sum competition of classes with opposing interests. The lubricant of oil has blurred this reality temporarily, but different developmental exits in which distinct classes win and lose are likely to come to the fore relatively quickly.
The conservative Chavistas within the state apparatus, the currents of reaction inside the military, the red bureaucrats enriching themselves through manipulation of markets and the union bureaucrats aligned against working-class self-organisation and emancipation are the pre-eminent obstacles of immediate concern. At the same time, the experiences of workers’ control, communal councils, communes and popular assemblies have raised the consciousness and capacities of millions. A dire turn is therefore not a fait accompli. Today we mourn the death of Chávez, tomorrow we return to the grind for socialism rooted in these forms of popular democracy.
This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in Jacobin
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram