Hugo Chávez 1954-2013

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After months of speculation as to whether he was still alive, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died on the 5th of March at a military hospital in Caracas. His last words were “I do not want to die. Do not let me die”.[1] President Chávez clearly saw his life’s work as unfinished, and had intended to stay in power until at least 2030.[2]

The political education which led Chávez to adopt leftist views came from his role in the Venezuelan guerra sucia against the Marxist guerrillas whose ideas he later espoused. From the moment he was catapulted from obscurity as a participant in the failed 1992 coup d’etat as a leftist army officer, he adopted a long-term plan to transform Venezuela. At that early stage however, he acknowledged that the aims of his coup were then only unobtainable “for now”.[3]

Jailed in the same year, and pardoned in 1994 by President Rafael Caldera, Chávez began a successful grassroots political campaign whose name, the Bolivarian revolution, alluded to Simon Bolivar, the ‘George Washington’ of Latin America. The Bolivarian movement’s progressive promises of social change in a deeply unequal country were enthusiastically embraced by the majority of the Venezuelan people. Elected in 1998, Chávez’s opinion polls exceeded 80% during the early years of his administration.[4]

Despite his detractors’ accusations of radicalism, his first term as president was informed far more by Giddens’ Third Way than Marx[5]. But even this slight drift to the left was too much for the Venezuelan oligarchy, whose armed wing conspired with their CIA handlers and the Bush administration to overthrow Chávez in 2002. The coup was only defeated through a mass popular uprising against the plotters.[6]

Chavez often faced accusations of being a dictator, but won multiple free and fair elections, and when he lost a 2007 electoral reform referendum he respected the vote.[7] His record of respect for the mandate of the Venezuelan people was not entirely matched by an exemplary treatment of civil liberties. In 2011 Noam Chomsky, an otherwise trenchant supporter of the Bolivarian revolution, criticised Chávez for concentrating too much power in his own hands and for the jailing of a member of the Venezuelan judiciary.[8]

There have also been instances of repression of political opponents, including socialists and indigenous rights activists.[9] The climate of Venezuelan politics in the later years of Chávez’s administration were increasingly characterised by the creation of a religio-political cult of personality around the President. Wall murals around Caracas depict Chávez as both a latter day Jesus Christ and Lenin, there has even been bizarre talk of embalming Chávez’s body.[10]

While Chávez was respectful of the electoral process in Venezuela, his foreign policy outside of the Americas more often than not put him on the side of reactionary dictators like Iran’s Ahmedinejad and Belarus’ Lukashenko, and both leaders prominently attended Chávez’s funeral.[11]

While concerns about his approach to civil liberties are no doubt valid, they were more often than not used by political opponents who cared very little about civil liberties and ignored the much worse situation in post-coup neoliberal Honduras.[12] Similarly, while Chávez’s words of support for the likes of Ahmedinejad and Lukashenko are beyond the pale, are they really any worse than Anglo-American support for the much worse Saudi and Bahraini monarchies?

The mass outpourings of grief following Chávez’s death and continuing support for his political party demonstrate that significant numbers of Venezuelans are either supportive of the more authoritarian aspects of Chávez’s administration or simply believe that the good that he has done outweighs the bad. Through massive health, education and food distribution programmes, Chávez sought to use Venezuela’s petrol reserves to make Venezuela a more equal place and managed to reduce poverty by 50%.[13]

The majority of Venezuelans want more of the same, and as a result Chávez’s successor Nicolas Maduro has a significant lead in the polls over the opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Barring a massive upset, Maduro will win the next election. What he does with his administration will prove whether or not the Bolivarian revolution can exist without Chávez.

Written by James Donnelly