After the death of Chavez, we have read and heard numerous comments. Whether, one describes Chavez as a Bolivarian revolutionary, an anti-American, a Socialist, or a populist, depends on one’s personal outlook. President Ahmadinejad has said that Chavez “will be resurrected alongside Jesus Christ…” to each his own. When former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Duddy, stated that”Chavez was both a divisive figure and revered leader. It is undeniable that he changed Venezuela. Many of the poor considered him a champion and will mourn his passing.” may be closer to the target.
Without putting a colored glass of bias, it seems, that Chavez undoubtedly empowered Venezuela’s poorest citizens, levels of poverty and unemployment saw a remarkable decline under his 14 years in power, and, by increasing popular participation in politics, the culture of democracy has outstandingly improved. At the same time, it seems to be factual that Chavez’s death has brought Venezuela to face an uncertain future.
I have included two interesting articles written on the impacts of Chavez on Venezuela’s political topography for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.
Professor Mekonen Haddis
What Chavez Left Behind
The bus slid along the Bolivian jungle road, with evangelical music blasting out of the speakers. Rain dripped steadily through the holes in the roof as the vehicle surged ahead in fits and starts, past the lights of small villages and the vast blackness of the Chapare, a tropical region in the center of the country. Eventually the rain gave way to dawn, and a hot sun baked the damp bus as we rolled into the city of Santa Cruz, where the 2003 Ibero-American Presidential summit was taking place. On the outskirts of the city, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez later spoke to a stadium packed with Bolivian coca farmers carrying bags of the green leaf and miners with mini Bolivian flags waving from their helmets.
Chávez captivated the stadium for hours, talking about baseball and Simón Bolívar, criticizing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and congratulating Bolivia for recently ousting a neoliberal president in popular protests. Smoke blew over the crowd from barbecues and occasional fireworks as the Venezuelan leader spoke into the night.
Here was a president marked by the movements and politics that surrounded him. Brazil’s Landless Movement cheered him on in a dusty gathering Porto Alegre in 2005 as he announced that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution (named after the Latin American independence leader) was a socialist political project. And the crowd went wild later that same year in Argentina as Chávez, alongside Maradona, celebrated the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
At these encounters, what was always the most impressive thing about Chávez was not so much what he said or did, but the political space and moment that surrounded him. From the Bolivian coca farmers who felt common ground in his ant-imperialist stance, to the many fellow leftist Latin American presidents that came into office during his 14 years in power, Chávez was defined by an era and a movement in Latin America that is far from depleted.
As an icon of the contemporary Latin American left, he helped create a space for other presidents to move in, whether it was with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa kicking out a US air base, or Bolivia’s Evo Morales nationalizing natural gas industries in Bolivia. The progressive constitution that Chávez helped rewrite provided a model for other governments to follow over the past decade. The regional blocs he worked to create fostered south-to-south economic and political alliances, provided a check to US military power in the region, and encouraged the leftist politics and economic policies of presidents across Latin America.
Beyond this regional influence, some of Chávez’s greatest legacies are not in the presidential palace, but in the streets, factories and neighborhoods of Venezuela, among the activists, workers and neighbors who have built the Bolivarian Revolution from the bottom up.
From communal councils to worker-run factories, Venezuela is the site of the some of the most sophisticated and successful experiments in direct democracy, socialism and worker-control in the world. While Chávez was a key figure in the development of many of these projects and initiatives, it is the Venezuelan people that brought them to life and will keep them alive after his death. Many of these programs are characterized not by top-down, bureaucratic state policies, or government funding handed out to create electoral support. They are the projects of people using the Bolivarian Revolution as a grassroots tool.
Since taking office in 1999 Chávez used his mandate as a leader, and the nation’s oil wealth, to create programs that provide free education, dental and health clinics, land and housing reform, government-subsidized supermarkets, and hundreds of thousands of business cooperatives. In Venezuela, where much of the population lives below the poverty line, these programs have had an enormous impact. Other government initiatives have helped spur on activism from below, self-governance at a local level, and direct democracy in political decision-making and funding.
A story from the neighborhood of El 23 de Enero in Caracas is emblematic of such progressive trends. El 23 de Enero neighborhood has a history of social consciousness and rebellion; as a poor, working class neighborhood, El 23 de Enero was marked by the police as a dangerous area, whose residents should be controlled and repressed. During conservative presidencies, the local police station was a place of torture and imprisonment for many leftist community leaders. After decades of state violence, and following the election of Chávez, the community was able to reclaim and transform this center of police repression. Juan Contreras, a radio producer, leader in the community organization Coordinador Simón Bolívar, and long-time resident of the neighborhood, told me how he and his compañeros took over the police station—for decades an outpost for crackdowns on leftist organizing—and transformed it into a community radio station and cultural center.
“This place was a symbol of repression,” Contreras explained to me in the studio, which smelled like fresh paint. “So we took that symbol and made it into a new one.” He continued: “It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. We can’t hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes.” The station receives state funding, but community members fought hard for permission to reclaim the police station by occupying the building without permission. El 23 de Enero’s victories are examples of how Venezuelan movements worked with the Chávez administration by demanding attention through direct action, and then working with subsequent state support.
The tactic used in El 23 de Enero of seizing upon the opportunities and space provided by the Chávez government, while also maintaining grassroots autonomy and momentum from below, is the foundation of many of the hopeful social changes going on in Venezuela today. Communal councils offer an interesting look into some of the participatory aspects of the Bolivarian process. They were created by the government in 2006, and thousands of them exist across the country today. The councils work to solicit funding from the government, begin social projects, programs, and missions in their community, and deal with issues like the management of local health and water projects. Long-time Venezuelan activist Alfonso Olivo believed the communal councils were “the most revolutionary measure that this government has taken” due to their transfer of power from mayors and governors to the ordinary citizens in the councils. “The people are capable [of social planning] by themselves, without the involvement of the state or the bureaucratic officials,” he explained in the excellent edited collection of interviews Venezuela Speaks! Voices From the Grassroots.
Communal councils in Venezuela show the fascinating push and pull that emerges where the state creates structures and projects that build community bonds. The councils are sometimes autonomous from, or even antagonistic toward, the Bolivarian state and party. The Chávez administration organized the councils in ways that encourage community involvement. Anyone over the age of fifteen can participate, and for a decision to be officially made, at least 30 percent of those in the council have to vote on it. In urban areas, councils must involve a minimum of 150 families, and around 20 families in rural areas. This scale means that the councils promote direct participation and are relatively easy to self-manage. When a council comes to a decision for a project, they can receive funding directly from the national government or national institutions, dispersing power away from local mayors and officials and into the hands of residents themselves.
Communal councils have provided a check to the power of local governments, as well as a platform to demand transparency and a more efficient bureaucracy from the government. The smaller scale and local focus of these councils is essential to their functionality, helping to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and circumvent corrupt or unresponsive politicians.
The councils can also provide a counterweight to a more centralized state. Political scientist Sara Motta writes in Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy that the communal councils “are an attempt to create a new set of state institutions that bypass the traditional state, and distribute power in a democratic and participatory manner.” The elasticity of the relationship between the grassroots and the state is tested here through a public empowered by state-created institutions—institutions that citizens can then use to challenge the traditional state if necessary.
The balancing act between remaining autonomous from the state and engaging it is described by council participant Edenis Guilarte in Reclaiming Latin America, “We must obtain the tools to be able to struggle against the bureaucracy and search for a way to get rid of leaders who want to control us, look to maintain their own power, and who divide the community.” In this sense, the councils can be a tool of emancipation. “What we are doing,” Guilarte explained, “is training, creating consciousness, which is a process that goes beyond repairing a road, obtaining a service, enabling access to water. It’s a macro process, a process of social change, a fight over ideas and practice.” The social bonds created by working on development projects through these state-created institutions can supersede the immediate goals of the actual project.
While communal councils manage budgets and develop community projects, they also serve as a basis for networking and developing community ties, which are then useful beyond the councils’ work. For example, Ismila, a community activist in a Caracas neighborhood, explained that when the public water company Hidrolara didn’t respond to demands from her community to deal with a sewage backup for two days, the members of her communal council decided to take matters into their own hands.
Because they were used to working together, debating and organizing, it was easy to coordinate a trip to the Hidrolara offices and demand to speak with the person in charge of dealing with sewage emergencies. Together, they had to pressure the officials for two hours, but ended up returning to their community with an engineer to take care of the problem. Ismila said, “We learned today that Hidrolara is useless as an institution, it does not work for the communities. These officials think they know everything and don’t listen to the community until there’s a problem.” So while the bureaucracy posed a problem, the solidarity and sense of community developed through the communal councils helped to solve it. The communal councils provide the tools for local organizing, which has a great potential to dismiss government clientelism and assert autonomy, helping people to live and organize beyond the state.
The Chávez government worked to open up spaces for community organizing, like that of communal councils and cooperatives, but also to encourage worker-control at factories and work places. In 2005, the Chávez administration announced decrees that enabled the state to expropriate businesses and factories to allow workers to manage them as cooperatives. With the legal steps in place for the state to intervene when a factory or business shuts its doors, the government can now collaborate with the workers to make sure the business continues and the workers remain employed. Furthermore, under worker self-management, workers have control over major decisions about how their workplace is organized. Dozens of businesses across Venezuela have come under state and worker control.
In 2005, workers took control of Inveval, a valve-producing business on the outskirts of Caracas. Pablo Cormenzana of Inveval explained in a 2006 interview with journalist Marie Trigona that the plant shut down on December 9, 2002, leaving the workers out of jobs. “Originally, there were 330 workers at the plant. A group of these workers decided to begin a fight to demand that the former owner pay them back what he owed them. Later, this demand transformed into the idea of recovering their jobs and to re-open the company.” This legal and political battle went on for years of organizing, workers camping outside the factory, and legal battles, until the factory went under state and worker control.
“Not only are the workers at Inveval successfully running a company without bosses or an owner, they’re also doing it without technocrats or bureaucracy from the government. The government has had little participation in the functioning of the company,” Cormenzana explained. “All of the workers make the same salaries, it doesn’t matter if they are truck drivers, line workers, or the president of the company. They are putting into practice genuine worker control at Inveval.” Inveval provides an interesting example of empowered workers taking charge to push the government to operate as a tool for the workers, rather than the other way around.
Throughout these various projects, conflicts, and relationships, the Venezuelan public has utilized the state as a people’s tool, and collaborated with it when the causes of the people and the government intersect. A true test for these movements from below is to what extent the Bolivarian Revolution will outlast Chávez.
Beyond the ongoing, everyday activism and organizing of people across Venezuela, one step will be the new presidential elections, now slated to take place on April 14th. Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, who was first elected to the National Assembly in 2000, was chosen by Chávez to be his successor. Maduro, who was Vice President and is now interim President, will run in the upcoming elections against right-wing opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, who Chávez beat by 11 percent in last October’s election. It is likely Maduro will win. Regardless of the outcome, the influence of Chávez-initiated programs and policies will be felt for generations in Venezuela and across Latin America.
The examples illustrated here are just some of the many hopeful projects in direct democracy and worker-control that mark Chávez’s legacy. Beyond Venezuela’s borders, this legacy includes a wider movement against US imperialism and capitalism, and for human rights, progressive land reform, peace and a just global economy.
On December 2, 2011, as clouds hovered just above the working class neighborhoods on the green hillsides around Caracas, the foundational summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) met. When walking around their meeting room, I realized that the political left of the 20th century was together there with the left of the 21st century: former guerrillas-turned-presidents Daniel Ortega and Raúl Castro sat at the same table as Cristina Kirchner and Evo Morales, with Chávez looking over it all from the head of the room. The goal of the meeting of 33 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state was to create a regional alliance that would make the US-dominated Organization of American States obsolete, and move toward self-determination outside of Washington’s power.
At that first gathering of the CELAC, Chávez reflected on the 200 years that have passed since Latin America’s independence from Spain, and the continued foreign colonization of the region through capitalism and imperialism. He quoted the last line in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: “[R]aces condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
The late Venezuelan leader concluded: “To us it appears someone had condemned us to one hundred years of solitude, and to one hundred more. But perhaps, because we were condemned to these first hundred and to these second hundred, someone has given us a second opportunity on this earth.”
Benjamin Dangl’s latest book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press)
Where is America’s Hugo Chavez?
Two events coincided this week that illustrate the crisis of political economy in the capitalist West—the premature and intensely sad death of Hugo Chavez and the trite idiocy symbolizing the class warfare declared by the rich against the rest of us as the Dow Jones stock index reached its highest point ever. Where Mr. Chavez dedicated (and likely gave) his life to improving the lot of Venezuela’s and the regional South’s poor and building the infrastructure of real economic and political democracy, America’s ‘liberal’ President Barack Obama claimed the right of extra-judicial assassination of the citizenry at his whim while ‘sequestering’ the economic interests of poor and working Americans to bolster the already substantial fortunes of the pirate financiers and industrialists he serves. To the political ‘left’ that voted for Mr. Obama, the contrast is there if you care to see it.
Lest there be confusion around the matter, the richest 1% of Americans own 40% of financial assets and the richest 10% own 80%. The soaring stock market symbolizes the ascendancy of a tiny economic elite with all social resources dedicated to consolidating its power. Remove financial and oil company profits, two industries existing on government transfer payments, tax breaks, business guarantees and occasional wars, all at public expense, along with the nearly $3 trillion in Federal Reserve asset purchases designed to boost the value of wealth ‘owned’ overwhelmingly by America’s plutocracy, and the stock market would be trolling the lower depths of hell. Through their mouthpieces in the capitalist media the wealthy put forward their wealth as fact of nature when it is anything but. As Mr. Chavez was able to demonstrate, from whence it came to where it goes, social wealth can be made to once again serve its social purpose.
A thought unlikely to occur to most Americans is the profoundly anti-democratic sidestep around habeas corpus that Mr. Obama’s claim to the right of extra-judicial murder of citizens implies ties directly to his economic policies. At a time when the U.S. uses murder robots around the globe to slaughter people charged with no crime, launches ‘pre-emptive’ wars of aggression, incarcerates millions of overwhelmingly people of color in for-profit prisons and returns immigrants to countries U.S. trade policies have rendered economically dysfunctional, the economic and political elite here enjoys near complete immunity from prosecution for any of a large number of war, political and economic crimes. As the informed left might have it, the concentration of wealth so facilitated by Mr. Obama’s economic policies ties directly to the concentration of political power amongst America’s plutocracy. While Republican voter suppression efforts appear directly anti-democratic, Mr. Obama’s policies to revive the fortunes of the rich while leaving everyone else to rot renders voting irrelevant to the formation of public policy through the relation of economic to political power.
Although circumstances between Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela and the U.S. differ, Mr. Chavez took his (their) fight to the people of Venezuela and he repeatedly and consistently won majorities of the vote in free and fair elections. The received wisdom in the U.S., a pathetic lie no doubt, is that deference to the wishes of the plutocrats is the prerequisite to fighting in the interests of ‘the people.’ The rank oblivion evidenced in the passions of purportedly thoughtful people in favor of Mr. Obama (‘New’ Democrats—Mr. Obama is but a placeholder) in the recent election supports this capitulation in the quasi-religious hope that if we give the plutocrats everything they ask for they might be nice to us in return.
What is in fact taking place is economic pillage with the full cooperation and facilitation of Mr. Obama and his administration. From banker bailouts to stolen homes, incarceration for profit, student loan penury, wars for oil, profit extracting sick-care and social insurance cuts, class war was launched and is being fought from above. And the non-conflictual economic theories of classical and neo-liberals have rendered cooperation the mechanism of self-subjugation. Against far greater odds Hugo Chavez fought back the forces of global capital, plutocracy and their servants in the oil mafia (CIA) to improve the lot of Venezuela’s poor. What he showed is the straightest path to achieving social justice is to fight for it.
The recurrent theory expressed by people who by now should know better is that Mr. Obama must ‘be made’ to do the right thing. What Hugo Chavez demonstrated is that an actual leader has a political-economic core which only evidence that ideas and policies aren’t working as intended informs and changes. The irony here is that to anyone paying attention, Mr. Obama also has just such a core and it is neo-liberal. Unless his supporters believe him to be incapable of seeing whether or not his policies are working, their continuation suggests they are working just as he intended them to. The difference then is that Mr. Chavez said what he believed and Mr. Obama said what he thought would win elections. Mr. Obama’s policies have consistently deviated from his explanations of them and always in the direction of supporting the ruling class against broader social well being.
As part of the national mythology many Americans, and likely nearly all liberals and progressives, accept the premise that policies designed to boost the fortunes of the already wealthy might be misdirected, but not outright destructive to their interests. After four years of unwavering support for America’s plutocrats and malignant acts toward their economic victims in every actual administration policy—witness his continuing call to cut social insurance programs while 20 million people remain un and under-employed as corporate profits and financial markets soar, Mr. Obama’s faithful retain the belief he is working in ‘their’ interest. In contrast, Mr. Chavez faced a ruling elite in Venezuela with a long history of taking all of the social resources they could get away with taking and there was never the pretense that allowing oligarchs (and / or the U.S.) to put social wealth in their own pockets benefited ‘everyone.’ Put another way, Mr. Chavez effectively articulated this point to those to whom it wasn’t already clear.
Venezuela’s oil wealth may have made this point more clearly visible, but no more true than it is in the U.S. today. Nature didn’t give Barack Obama the ‘right’ to murder U.S. citizens (or anyone else) without trial or evidence—a policy conspicuously against the interests of all who lack the social power to resist it. This point is likely well understood by those who have historically been on the receiving end of coercive (captive) state power—people of color and various permutations of the poor and dispossessed. The economic elite who have so benefited from Mr. Obama’s policies clearly don’t see themselves and their families as potential targets of the state’s newly ‘legitimated’ right to murder. To the extent economic class provides the dividing line between the giving and receiving ends of this power, the relation between it and wealth concentration is made visible. And it is this very line Mr. Obama has helped to so clearly demarcate.
And so to what effect is Mr. Obama’s ‘effort’ to raise the minimum wage if the entirety of his time in office is spent empowering the same plutocrats who resist the idea and are determined to see it defeated? These titans of finance and industry were hobbled and momentarily humbled when Mr. Obama entered office and today they are fully restored, in large measure due to his efforts. The distribution of corporate profits clearly indicates their intent with the lowest proportion in history going to labor and the highest to capital. Liberal economists decry this outcome as they use aggregated data that hides it to argue Mr. Obama’s economic policies have been a relative ‘success.’ Of what benefit is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ‘growth’ if what it accomplishes is to grow the political power of a ruling elite determined to use it to reduce the political power and economic circumstance of everyone else?
When Mr. Obama reiterated (for the 8,000th time) ‘his’ willingness to cut social insurance programs whose only shortcomings are that corrupt, self-interested executives and capital are bleeding them dry, where were the fools who insisted he was only doing so because he was being forced to by obstinate demagogues in the Republican party?
Tens of millions of people are only a few dollars away from living in the street and cutting social insurance programs will put them there. If his supporters are still dull enough to believe he is being forced into policies he doesn’t really support, why then has he so focused on delivering political power through his economic policies to the enemies of social insurance programs that we, the people, pay for?
To reiterate, there is nothing personal in this critique of Mr. Obama—the problem is his policies and it is his institutional role that is being criticized. By contrast, there is everything personal in calling Hugo Chavez a great leader; a champion of the poor and dispossessed, and ultimately in his institutional role as a facilitator of economic and political democracy that knows it can only exist by keeping its enemies humble.
The Western mythologies of political democracy in the context of economic plutocracy and of ‘natural’ distribution of economic resources was tried in Venezuela and was shown to produce a political economy where a few thrive at the expense of broader society, not from ‘nature’ but from the deliberate acts of people. The same is true in America today. With Hugo Chavez as a model, my contention is Americans would respond to a leader with a social justice core s/he is willing to fight for. What we don’t need is just one more cynical windbag with the patina of ‘liberal’ shilling for the military oil banker mafia.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York
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