Hugo Chavez was an extraordinary phenomenon. To describe him as a phenomenon
is not merely hyperbolic. Certainly he was, to use a much over-used phrase,
charismatic. But he was more than that. His ability to move millions of mainly
poor people – “los pobres de la tierra” – to a passion of loyalty and adoration
was quite phenomenal. It was as though he had pulled a lever to unleash an
immense wave of popular enthusiasm which he then began to shape into a great
social movement to claim the birthright of the dispossessed.
With whom may he be compared? In Latin America one thinks immediately of Che Guevara. But Che, during his lifetime, did not evoke anything comparable to the immense popular appeal of Chavez, nor did his death provoke the spontaneous outpouring of unrestrained grief that followed the announcement of Chavez’s death on 6 March. Che’s death in 1967 was greeted in Cuba, and amongst revolutionaries and socialists wider afield, rather with stunned disbelief, anger at his murder, and sadness. It was the world-wide student revolts in 1968 that made a martyr of Che Guevara and turned his image into the symbol of anti-imperialist revolution that he has been ever since.
Some have suggested that Chavez may be compared to Argentina’s Juan Peron, whose populist demagogy and social base in the trade unions made him popular with the working class. But his was a quasi-fascist regime which exploited and manipulated its working-class supporters rather as did Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, which was the inspiration for Peron. A closer comparison with the affection felt for Chavez may be found in Argentine workers’ devotion to Eva Peron, whose funeral in 1952 provoked an expression of grief-stricken mass mourning similar to what is happening in Caracas today. But for all the apparent similarities, this comparison is superficial. The adulation of Eva Peron has been captured more accurately in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical dedicated to her memory. Evita was adored as a pop-star (Madonna) and mourned as a princess (Diana).
The most apposite comparison is with Fidel Castro. Those old enough to remember the first phase of the Cuban revolution will be struck by how similar Hugo Chavez seemed to the younger Fidel. Both have been tribunes of their people, engaging them in huge popular rallies of direct democracy. Both (forty or fifty years apart and in very different circumstances) broke free from the constraining institutions and practices of “bourgeois” democracy to which, in the first stages of their respective revolutions, they were expected to conform. They began the process of creating a genuine popular democracy, drawing the masses of the poor and property-less into the political arena to begin building a new social and economic order. Both had what in the English vernacular is termed “the gift of the gab” – a talent for oratory. Both were extraordinary communicators, able to captivate hundreds of thousands of people with the power of the spoken word. But in emphasizing this “gift” one needs to be cautious. Hitler and Mussolini were gifted demagogues, skilled at captivating, mesmerizing, and deceiving mass audiences. Gifted speakers may sometimes be great charlatans. The oratorical genius of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez has nothing in common with the demagogy of charlatans. It derives from a passionate commitment to the cause of the popular masses – to the exploited workers and peasants of their respective countries. But their horizons were not limited by nationalism. While they spoke the language of national liberation, directed primarily against U.S. imperialism – the “Empire” to the north - they were both uncompromising internationalists. It was this burning internationalism that led Che Guevara to sacrifice his life in the struggle to liberate the whole of Latin America from the shackles of feudal latifundismo, comprador capitalism and imperialism. It is hardly surprising that Hugo Chavez treated the memory of the long-dead Che Guevara with such reverence, or that he chose the still living Fidel Castro as his mentor.
But the course of the Venezuelan revolutionary process between 1998 and 2013 has been very different from the early years of the Cuban revolution. The Cuban revolution was the last of the three classic socialist revolutions of the twentieth century – Russia (1917), China (1949) Cuba (1959). The old comprador Batista regime was overthrown in short order, the old army dismantled and replaced with a people’s army drawn from the guerrilla militia, the old state dismantled and replaced by a state based on the workers and peasants. All this was done in the face of implacable hostility and military intervention organized by the United States. Within a few years the Cuban revolutionary leaders were obliged to adjust their policies and their institutions to suit the demands of their main sponsor and donor – the Soviet Union. This was done with considerable reluctance on their part. The fact that Cuba was able to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, albeit experiencing years of extreme hardship through the collapse of the economy, testifies to the inherent resilience of the regime. The Venezuelan experience in the first decade of the twenty first century has been very different.
Hugo Chavez was the pioneer in Latin America of what has come to be termed “socialism for the twenty first century.” It is a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of most liberal commentators that very few have shown the slightest interest in trying to learn what he and his comrades in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) might have meant by it. Instead, if Venezuela has figured at all in the British media, it has served as an opportunity to attack Chavez. He has been described by the Guardian’s Rory Carroll as an “elected autocrat”, and by the Observer’s Nick Cohen as an “elected dictator” who, despite improving the lot of the poor, was leading his country to ruin. During Venezuelan election campaigns, foreign journalists, usually ensconced on the affluent white elite side of the Caracas class divide, have, echoing their informants, confidently reported either that Chavez was facing defeat or that the election was “on a knife edge”. Despite being proved wrong when he has won by landslides, they then go on to say that the elections were free “but not fair.” Ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s observation that Venezuela’s electoral process was the best in the world is conveniently ignored by those uninterested in the views of someone with world-wide experience of elections, fraudulent and fair. The fact that in December 2012 the PSUV won 20 of the 23 states in regional elections – an increase from 18 won in 2008 – was of no interest to most commentators in the British media. These results were also ignored.
Of course there is much about Hugo Chavez’s exercise of political power in Venezuela that may be criticized, but the hostility towards him personally goes far beyond balanced criticism. The visceral hatred borne him by so many of his opponents inside Venezuela is largely explained by social class. He was regarded as a mixed-race “mulatto” from the lower orders, who had upset the apple cart and unleashed the denizens of the “Barrios” onto the political scene, squandering the country’s oil wealth on the undeserving poor. This is the view of right-wing republicans in the U.S. and the conservative bourgeoisie throughout Latin America. For such of his critics, the fact that he was adored by the millions of “pobres de la tierra” simply proves how simple-minded and easily led they are. Democrats and liberal supporters of Obama in the United States will recognize similar sentiments evident amongst Republicans toward their president in the last two elections.
Those who believed that socialism should have been dead and buried with the Soviet Union do not want to face the prospect of a new version of socialism arising in Latin America – one that cannot be so easily denounced as a form of totalitarian dictatorship. The cheer-leaders for neo-liberal capitalism are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their product these days, following the banking collapse and the onset of the Great Recession. They are worried that with long-term stagnation in the European economies and the United States, the “pink tide” may begin to turn red. Henry Kissinger, who had a hand in the coup that toppled Salvador Allende on 9/11 1973, said that it could not be tolerated that the Chilean people had elected a Marxist as President, and that they would have to take the consequences. Today’s heirs of Kissinger may harbor similar thoughts about Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
In Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay left wing presidents have been elected and, to varying degrees, programs of radical reform have been adopted. Less radical but nevertheless significant shifts away from the old conservative, pro-U.S. power bases have also occurred in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Since the beginning of the century U.S. political and economic influence and control over Latin America has declined rapidly. This has been notable in the creation, on the initiative of Cuba and Venezuela, of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) and, most recently, in the failure of the U.S. inspired FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) to get off the ground. Whether or not the peoples of Latin America decide to embrace some version of twentieth century socialism, it is pretty clear that they will not allow themselves to be dominated by the United States and subjected any more to the shock doctrines of neo-liberal corporate capitalism.
In Venezuela it is likely that Vice-President Nicolas Madero, will win the coming presidential election with a large majority. At the moment there is every indication that he and the PSUV will continue on the radical course set by Hugo Chavez. What may we expect for Venezuela in the future? If “socialism for the twenty first century” (wherever it is to be attempted) is to be more than a phrase, it will have to differ from the Soviet style “actually existing socialism” of the twentieth century in these respects at least:
1. It will have to be genuinely democratic. Any attempt to install a single-party regime will be intolerable and will deserve to fail. There will have to be constitutional safeguards for freedom of speech and expression, including the right to criticize the government.
2. A government of the people must have the power under a democratic constitution, to implement by stages the fullest appropriation into public ownership of “the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Such public ownership will be constitutionally guaranteed and attempts to subvert it will be illegal and regarded as attempted theft of people’s property. This means that the power of capital will have to be broken. The instruments of public ownership will have to be under democratic control, with all positions of authority open to election.
3. A free press must be guaranteed. This means (see 2 above) that there will be a diversity of viewpoints and opinions in the media, but that no communications’ media will remain under the control of large capitalist corporations, as is the case for example in the U.K.
4. The judiciary will be independent of the executive organs of government. Members of the judiciary will be democratically elected from among those appropriately qualified to hold such positions.
5. A government of the people, for the people, must work tirelessly to bring about a cultural revolution. This means that every effort will be made to achieve full racial and sexual equality. Racial discrimination, discrimination against women and against gays will be made illegal. Health care and education from the cradle to the grave will be free. A people’s government will aim to reduce as far as possible the income gap between rich and poor.
No-one can expect that Venezuela, or any country, could achieve these objectives overnight. But these are the objectives that will be involved if “socialism for the twenty-first century” is to be achieved. The attempt to achieve it will entail a long and bitter struggle. It will involve taking steps which will be very divisive, pursuing what in the twentieth century used to be called “class struggle.” That is what “expropriating the expropriators” is all about.