Thursday, April 10, 2008
Early April 2002: Hugo Chavez returns to power after a coup attempt, the suspension of all constitutional rights and the installation of a new government recognized by the US. At the time, I had some awareness of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, primarily through his October 2001 condemnation of the US attack upon Afghanistan as an instance of fighting terror with terror, replete with photographs of dead Afghans. It was one of those profound moments, a truly brave statement of resistance at a time when the political leadership of the rest of the world was cowed into silence in the face of US intentions to militarily expand its influence in response to 9/11.
Upon hearing about the coup on April 9th, I realized that Chavez was a seminal figure of the age, someone around whom opposition to the purported war on terror and US inspired neoliberal policy had coalesced. The popular uprising that restored Chavez to power within days after the coup, and his victory in a national referendum on the question of his removal from office a couple of years later, after an attempt by workers and managers in the state turn oil company, PDVSA, to bring the economy to a halt by shutting down the production, literally changed the course of history.
Along with the enduring ability of the Iraqi insurgency to inflict grievous losses upon the US, losses in both blood and money that have impaired the offensive capabilities of the US military, the survival of Chavez has prevented the US from recreating the global economy in its own imperialistic image. Even more important, his survival has served as an inspiration for social movements around the world dedicated to the goals of fulfilling the needs of impoverished people and empowering them.
Consistent with this, we tend to disregard the extent to which Chavez is admired because, as a dark skinned ruler, with indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan roots, he presents a marked contrast to the Eurocentric figures that have dominated not just South America, but many other parts of the world as well. The Irish documentary about the failed coup, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, provides some excellent insight into these themes.
Here is Part 1 of that documentary:The remaining segments are readily available on YouTube.
Of course, Chavez is not without flaws. He vacillates between policies of economic centralization and decentralization; he has not put sufficient land in the hands of campesinos so as to reduce Venezuela's dependency upon other countries for much of its food supply; he has failed to reduce the country's notorious incidence of violent crime, and, he tends to reflexively embrace other anti-American leaders around the world indiscriminately.
But these failings do not outweigh his strengths. Since the end of the late 2002, early 2003 PDVSA sabotage, he has presided over an impressive period of economic growth, as indicated here and here, one that has disproportionately benefitted the poorest of Venezuelans. Unemployment has dropped from 16.6% when he was elected to 7.6% in February 2008, after being just over 10% in January 2008 and December 2007. Such a record stands in marked contrast to the domestic record of the Bush presidency.
Chavez has created a culture of democratic participation at all levels of society to replace the duopoly, governance by elites that relied upon the practice of alternation, the rotating substitution of rule by one party by the other, to implement neoliberal policies. If anything, as noted by Lula and others, he has subjected Venezuela to an excess of democracy through electoral and referenda campaigns that have seemingly followed one after another.
Accordingly, Chavez remains a strong anti-imperialist with an impressive record of economic accomplishment. Predictably, despite the referendum defeat last year, he remains popular with the Venezuelan public. The preservation of his legacy depends upon confronting new economic challenges emerging over the course of this period of growth, the emergence of a new generation of leaders within Venezuela capable of carrying forward the Bolivarian Revolution, the continued vitality of leftist movements throughout the continent and, just possibly, the continued success of Iraqi insurgency.