“Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, It swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.”
- Eduardo Galeano
One of the great leaders of the 21st Century has died. Hugo Chavez, after a long battle with cancer, passed away yesterday. He was the personification of a revolutionary process that has swept Latin America for more than a decade. He was a thorn in the side of Western imperial power; a champion of the poor and disenfranchised; and an inspiration to millions across the world. The Bolivarian revolution continues, but without its greatest spokesperson.
Socialism for the 21st Century
Chavez emerged onto the political scene in the 1990s, a time of opulence and decadence for the rich, and deteriorating conditions and poverty for the vast majority of the population. International economists and Latin American elites continued to slap each other on the back, Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, they said, had been proven correct: ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism. Hugo Chavez proved them dramatically wrong.
Hugo gained mass popularity after launching an armed insurrection against the government in 1992. This attempt failed – but the few seconds of television exposure that he achieved as a result potentially changed the course of history. “Unfortunately” he said, “the objectives that we set ourselves have not been achieved.” The insurrection was over…“por ahora” (for now). Overnight those words appeared everywhere; sprayed on walls across the barrios of Caracas; graffitied on bus stops; and scratched into high school desks. The people were hungry for change, and when they looked at Chavez they saw themselves.
After his release from prison he won a landslide victory in the Presidential elections of 1998, which shook the Venezuelan elite to its core. A fifth republic was announced. And unlike so many in Latin America, Chavez started moving further left after his election. Spurred on by grassroots movements, his vision was to use Venezuela’s huge oil wealth to redistribute power and resources to the poor; develop an alternative economic model through parliamentary reform; and increase integration amongst Latin American and Caribbean states in an attempt to build a new Pan-American left block that could challenge the hegemony of the USA and the institutions of international finance capital (the IMF, WTO etc) which dictated policy in the region.
Chavez, a central figure in the global anti-capitalist movement, famously closed the World Social forum in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The cues to see him could have filled several stadia rather than the paltry park made available (Lula de Silva did not want to be upstaged on his home turf, but he was none the less). It was there that Chavez uttered the words that would come to define him: “our mission must be to build a new socialism for the 21st century”.
“It still smells of sulphur in here,” Hugo Chavez declared in September 2006 at the lectern of the UN General Assembly. “The devil was here yesterday. And he talked as if the world belonged to him.” He spoke of George W Bush, and electrified a global anti-imperialist movement still sickened by the ravages of Iraq. Chavez railed against US aggression and attempted to build an international alliance of anti-imperialist states in the global south. Living in a continent patronisingly referred to by US policy makers as ‘the back yard’, Chavez knew well that north American aggression required global resistance, and that if the US was not otherwise occupied in the Middle East greater attention would be paid to the Latin spring. On occasion this perspective led to serious mistakes, such as an alliance with Gadaffi in Libya. But overall these errors were limited.
His symbolism as an international icon of resistance was demonstrated once again only a few months after his address to the United Nations. Israel, with the backing of Britain and the United States, invaded Lebanon provoking a global backlash in opinion against Zionism. On the huge demonstrations in Beirut that celebrated the victory of Hizbullah against the IDF, people carried placards of three people: Hassan Nasrallah; Abdul Nasser; and Hugo Chavez.
Despite the numerous characterisations of his government as totalitarian and fascistic, Hugo Chavez was elected on more occasions than any other political leader in the 21st Century. But the project to build an alternative to neoliberal austerity was, unsurprisingly, not welcomed by Washington or Venezuela’s elite. They would stop at nothing to depose him, culminating in a US sponsored military coup in 2002. The generals and business leaders did not, however, count on the people on Venezuela: on the news of Chavez’ ouster, they poured down from the barrios on the hillside in their hundreds of thousands to surround Miraflores, the Presidential palace demanding the return of the President. The country was in chaos, and rank and file soldiers still loyal to the revolution gained the courage to act. They stormed the palace and Chavez – who had been imprisoned on a small Island – was returned. This is the central narrative of the Bolivarian revolution (captured beautifully by the film ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ – below). Chavez was a leader, a great leader, but only at the good grace of the people. The revolution belonged to the people. And will continue to be shaped by them long after his death.
The meaning of Chavez
Chavez was an inspiration to millions. His denunciations of rapacious imperial power and his love of the poor made him stand out as a political leader. But he represents more than that. Far more. He, and the Venezuelan people, represent the ability of the left to regain power in society. To get out of the gutter once and for all. Across Latin America in the 1990s the left was weaker than it is today in Europe, and Venezuela was no different. In the space of a decade and a half so much has changed. Today, despite everything, we have seen real attempts to eradicate poverty, inequality and to transfer power out of the board rooms and back into the communities. Advances for the left can be achieved through the ballot box. And this can act as a catalyst for far greater participation and confidence. Chavez leaves us a legacy, and we must live up to it: He – and the people of Venezuela, the people of Bolivia, the people of Ecuador and Paraguay and Brazil – created an example. They proved to us that there is an alternative to the neoliberal nightmare.
Chavez is dead, but he gave his life for the revolution. And that revolution lives on.