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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