I have genuinely been in shock this week after learning that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is really dead. It’s taken me a few days to truly accept that the man who’d seemed so invincible for years, who always won elections despite the US funding his opponents, who faced down a coup and won inside a weekend, had died young, before he was finished. After years when millions had chanted “Chavez will not go”, he was gone.
He was someone who was exceptional and unique, and his inspirational influence has affected millions of people around the world, including me. Without him, I think millions less people in the world than there are today would have become socialists. For years following the revolution in Venezuela and the actions of his government has been like being allowed to dream of somewhere things were getting better, not worse.
Working class people the world over saw themselves in him. I think his gregarious personality comes across the language barrier, but for Venezuelans, his speech, songs and everything about how he was all made him recognisable in a way that no one from the old political elite was.
It’s also worth remembering quite how racialised South American countries are, traditionally with politcal power increasing with the lightness of your skin. Chavez was frequently mocked by the wealthy, mostly white former elite as an animal and racist comments about his complexion.
Where else in the world can you imagine the President hosting a show like ‘Alo Presidente’, where the head of the state tells jokes, chats politics and sings, all as part of a phone in where his constituents can ring to talk to him directly?
Chavez came to power when I was 15, just before I started to get really involved with politics. It wasn’t an easy time to start becoming a socialist. Sure, in Scotland there was a new party, which was quite exciting. But around the world, where was there left that was even halfway towards being left wing?
In what feels like a different universe now, it was a time where the general media consensus was that we lived in an ever expanding future of endlessly wealthy internet capitalism where every country in the world would install roughly identically meaningless managers to run things on behalf of globalisation. Everything controversial had been sorted out with the end of the Cold War, and it was time for us to settle down to an eternity of happy shopping. Most people were completely unable to imagine that dot.com’s weren’t making money, let alone that the whole structure of capitalism was going to grind to a screeching halt just 8 years later.
Remembering that world should make us realise how completely unpredictable the future is, and how bizarre developments will come forward to upset your expectations. No one foresaw that millions around the world were going to be re-energised into a renewed drive for socialism, inspired by the election of a charismatic military officer in Venezuela. The actions of Chavez means millions of people look to his country for inspiration who otherwise maybe never even would have heard of it.
It was a couple of years into his Presidency before I heard of him, but when I did I was impressed. This was before Chavez called himself a socialist. But I read about a new administration in Venezuela that had clamped down on the creeping privatisation of their nationalised oil industry, and that had constitutionally guaranteed that oil wealth belonged to the people; that had started to back up those words with action by using oil revenues to put in place massive programmes of expanding health, education, housing, subsidised food and other basic social human rights.
After he was elected, Chavez had held a referendum (something they never used to do in Venezuela) to establish a democratically elected constitutional assembly, representing local areas and indigenous people’s nations as well, which would re-found the country. He had promised at inauguration that:
“The New Republic will have a Magna Carta befitting these new times.”
The new constitution wasn’t far off living up to that: it’s one of the longest and most comprehensive constitutions in the world, guaranteeing every citizen free education including uni, free healthcare and the rights of native peoples to preserve their languages and independence. Political representatives became subject to the right of recall. Amongst other things!
President tries to make deal with capitalism – capitalism tries to kill him
Chavez wasn’t yet a socialist. That came later. When he first came to power he had romantic ideas about capitalism, of the kind that used to occupy the imaginations of Labour governments back in the day in Britain: that you could tame the capitalist tiger so it became a friendly house cat in front of the nationalised gas fire.
But Chavez was, before he even realised it, living out a contradiction that defines political life in the 21st century. We no longer live in the post-World War Two golden age of capitalism where the rich could afford the NHS, public housing or generally allowing the poor to survive. Today, the vast majority in the world believe that housing, health care, education should be basic human rights and provided by society. But in the age of neoliberalism, things have gone so wrong that it’s really radical to demand the means to survive. To make sure we don’t get even these, the ruling class are prepared to go to pretty extreme lengths.
In Venezuela that included getting bosses to lock up workplaces and try and pretend everyone was on strike – people liked the government so much they dingyed the chance of a day off and went to work anyway. They tried a military coup, except it turned out that most of the military was on the side of Chavez, and practically everyone in Venezuela came out on the streets ready to go berserk. The regime collapsed in a weekend, and Chavez was back. They even used the right of recall, something that came from the radical constitution itself. They hilariously emulated the electoral strategy of Sideshow Bob by filling up the petition with the names of dead people, only to (yet again) lose the democratic vote.
I felt that a country that was building schools and hospitals, that was on its way to wiping out illiteracy, and that had radically democratised itself, was doing not bad. Especially compared to the rest of the world, which had government policies that came out of a giant cut and paste exercise carried out in an office building in Washington D.C.
I started to get more involved in doing Venezuela solidarity work. I organised and spoke at meetings, raised money, got audiences for Venezuelans who came over to speak. I must have been at dozens of showings of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’ To me, it was clear that Venezuela was one of our main sources of hope in the world. It made me believe that my own dream of living in an independent socialist Scotland could really happen, that it was possible still for radical change to happen in places where no one expected it. The existence of Venezuela in a world that also contained George Bush and the war in Iraq seemed like a dream.
I wasn’t the only one. Not just in Venezuela, but around the world, Chavez was becoming a heroic figure to struggling people all over the planet. The strength of the Venezuelan people made us all feel powerful. It also helped galvanise a revolutionary wave sweeping the continent, as one after another neoliberal, US-supporting governments fell.
But then as now, there are always haters on the left. They were always more left wing than Chavez and his government, and could always find evidence that proved Venezuela didn’t live up to their expectations of what a radical government should be doing. Of course, the revolution often does fall short of perfection, because it operates in reality, not the imagination of would-be revolutionaries.
In my experience, they were generally pretty niche Trotskyists or anarchists, who loved to seize on every strike where state officials acted like dicks to dismiss Chavez. They want us to see him as some kind of gigantic impostor, who thought pissing off America and declaring himself a revolutionary was a kind of fancy dress it’d be fun to adopt, hiding the fact that he was essentially no different to his contemporaries Tony Blair and George Bush. It’s Fantasy Football politics that rejects everything that falls short of what they see as perfection.
Since his death last week, I’ve seen plenty of these people coming out of the woodwork to use the occasion to push their own analysis, as if the death of such an interesting and unique human being is nothing but a news hook to hang their own dogmatic ideological points on. Typical of the comments was “Chavez is dead. Unfortunately the personality cult continues,” followed by an article with links drawn from NGOs linked to the US government. It’s pretty pathetic really, and shows how much their politics don’t relate to reality.
Chavez used his power to empower others
“Sadly the aphorism “the good die young,” comes true too often. The aphorism “power tends to corrupt” also comes true too often. But not in this case.
Call Chavez the exception that proves the rule, if you like, but his use of power was restrained compared to choices of the Cuban revolution, for example, much less compared to more typical cases. And Chavez tirelessly advocated dispersing influence, including working on creating a new infrastructure to replace the power he wielded with power from the people.
Many in the political circles I relate most to believe that a person imbued with vast power would never sincerely work on behalf of shifting power to the people. I can only say to them, look at the councils, assemblies, and communes and the transformed lives of millions of Venezuelans, and consider the very obvious aim of it all, and then assess Chavez in light of the evidence.”
At the heart of Chavez was a contradiction. There was an incredible, quasi-religious following of his charisma among the people. But the political approach of the Venezuelan revolution was always to encourage mass popular education, mobilisation and participation. Communities became more organised, ‘Bolivarian Circles’ were formed to talk about politics, and working class people who never had been allowed an opinion before began to take the stage in politics.
The role of the new radical constitution was key here. The rights it guaranteed had to be made reality by people demanding them whenever real life fell short, and the government reinforced that message. Little copies of the document were carried around by working class people to be brandished at anyone that tried to deny them, and articles were printed on grocery packaging to make sure everyone knew where they stood.
Huge mass popular movements, many with roots going back to the times before Chavez but having received a massive boost from the revolution, now play a prominent part in political life. That includes a reformed, democratised and active trade union movement; mass movements of peasants and land reformers; and feminists and activists for gender and sexual equality, embraced by a revolution on a continent where even left governments were historically patriarchal and homophobic. As Richard Seymour wrote:
“Chavez did not invent the diverse social movements, radical workers’ organisations, environmentalists, gay and lesbian groups, community councils and so on that sustained him in power. But he did federate them; he did contribute to their unity and cohesion; he did try to use state power to advance their goals, with ambiguous but generally positive results.”
The most exciting example of this is the massive growth of both worker owned co-operatives, and of communal councils. The councils are self-governing communities of a few hundred families. These communes are run by mass assemblies where everyone can take part, and help decide the priorities and how they will develop their community. Central government simply provides funding.
When coupled with workers co-operatives, you begin to see the potential of a real, mass democratic participatory economy where stuff is locally produced on a plan made by people themselves.
Building these is a slow and difficult process, because it requires mass participation from everyone in an area. Years after the process began, many communities are still not well organised enough to establish themselves as communes. But there are already hundreds, with incredible potential, which shows that the Venezuelan revolution is fundamentally different to the centralising statist left of the 20th century – it’s built on participatory democracy.
Chavez learnt through struggle
The more the US and the local rich (known as escaulidos, the squalids) pushed Chavez, the more he came to realise that there was no way he could deliver his programme of full democracy and meeting the people’s needs, and ultimately keep the same economic system. People themselves were affected to – they saw all the attempts to take away the government they had voted for, and they got radicalised. The government kept moving to the left, pressured by the fact its enemies were insanely unwilling to compromise, and by the mass popular movements at the same time.
This culminated in the electrifying moment in 2005 when he finally came out as a socialist*, in a speech to the World Social Forum:
“We have to reinvent socialism. It cannot be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on co-operation, not competition. If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, capitalism must be transcended. But we cannot resort to State Capitalism, which would lead to the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the State ahead of everything.”
With that, he proved how much people can learn in struggle, and how irrelevant the western perfectionists who just parroted that he wasn’t a socialist were. With that speech he made one of the most important basic statements about what socialism means today. That little summary has been heard and thought about by millions. It must be for the genuine development of every human being to reach their full potential. That can’t be achieved by someone commanding from on high, but people doing it themselves through popular education and participation.
No one would have been surprised if Chavez had crumbled under the pressure he faced from the Venezuelan rich and their powerful allies in the US. But he did the opposite, analysed the situation he found and correctly concluded it was necessary to move beyond capitalism.
Venezuela’s revolution can teach Scotland
It may not seem as intuitive to many, but what has taken place in Venezuela this century has as many lessons, and some of what they have done is as much of a model for Scotland to emulate in its early years of independence as the long admired Scandinavian countries.
Perhaps the defining act of the Venezuelan revolution has been to defend the publicly owned status of Venezuela’s oil reserves. The nationalised oil company, PDVSA, had long been a bureaucratic state within the state, who’s all-powerful managers were gearing up to make themselves lots of money with privatisation. Chavez’ election put a stop to that, and many of them were fired. The new company became an arm of social policy, as oil revenues were put to work in the service of the people, rapidly expanding public services.
This isn’t as crazily a radical an idea as many would like you to believe. There’s also a state owned oil company across the sea in Norway, where the state has used this vast wealth to create a society which may not be perfect, but does pretty well in the league tables of best places to live if you’re a human.
By contrast, Scotland (as misruled by Westminster) has been like a pensioner conned by a fake charity, happily giving away our natural wealth to absolute bandits while our country collapsed into being part of the most unequal society in the west and thousands die prematurely every year because of poverty. For decades, we have left our oilfields in corporate hands, charging them a ridiculously low level of tax (which they won’t pay anyway because we don’t enforce it). Our carbon wealth has been looted up until now by the energy corporations. Given this, John Swinney recently said that in the coming era of rising oil prices, Scotland can’t afford to not be independent. I’d add that the people of Scotland can’t afford not to take the ownership of their oil into their own hands by creating a state owned oil corporation.
When elected, Chavez moved immediately to have the people democratically refound the state on the basis of the new constitution. The Scottish Government have already been talking about what rights could be guaranteed by a constitution. The obvious potential is for a Yes vote in the referendum to open up the chance to bring about radical change. In the early years of an independent Scotland we should be studying the revolutionary constitutions of Venezuela and Bolivia, and how they elected constituent assemblies to write them.
Of course the other lesson to learn from Venezuela is that this won’t happen unless the people make it happen, both before and after writing any constitution. We need to be organising for this now, by building the collective power of communities, workers and different oppressed groups in Scotland so that they are in a position to make demands of the constitution. It’s important to remember that this first act of the Venezuelan revolution was carried out by a collective constituent assembly, not one man.
Scotland should seek to rebuild base itself, like Venezuela now does, on genuine human development of everyone’s potential, and a commitment to the full participation of all in democratic life. Despite ridiculous claims in the British media that Venezuela for the last 14 years has been a dictatorship, the level of political debate and involvement that takes place in every community would put the highly undemocratic Scotland to shame. The growth of communal councils stands in stark contrast to our small local mafias running the local state. The communes show that to be workable local democracy needs mass participation, and so must be at a level that people can actually identify with.
The Venezuelan revolution was Bolivarian, after Simon Bolivar, the leader of the fight for Latin American independence against imperial Spain. Venezuela is the first revolutionary history of our century, and has a wealth of lessons for us to draw on. One of those is to learn from the way their revolution drew on their own particular traditions of struggle, invoking the wars of Bolivar against Spain, and of peasants in later centuries to demand land reform. The revolution has also drawn on the strength of the knowledge of Venezuela’s indidgenous cultures. Bolivar’s tutor was an idiosyncratic Venezuelan philosopher Simon Rodriguez, one of the 19th century founders of popular education. He argued that “Latin America must invent, or die.” He meant that it was a unique blend of peoples (American, European, African) all with different hitories and cultures, making Latin America a new and original part of the world. They shouldn’t look abroad for how to run their affairs, but create things anew.
The Venezuelan revolution didn’t make its model a carbon copy of the Soviet Union like an earlier generation of Latin American revolutionaries. They created their own brand of socialism out of the long and unique experiences of the Venezuelan people. Socialists everywhere could learn from how they did that.
In 1992, having seen a people’s uprising and riots aginast neoliberal price rises, Chavez tried to organise a coup and overthrow the government. It was defeated, and he asked to appear on telly to ask the soldiers that supported him to stand down. In his statement, he famously said:
“First of all, I want to say good morning to all the people of Venezuela. This Bolivarian message is directed to all the courageous soldiers who are in the paratrooper regiment in Aragua and the tank regiment in Valencia. Comrades: unfortunately, for now [por ahora] the objectives we set ourselves were not achieved in the capital city. That is, those of us here in Caracas did not seize power. Where you are, you performed very well, but now is the time to reflect. New opportunities will arise and the country has to head definitely towards a better future.
So, listen to what I have to say. Listen to the Comandante Chavez, who is sending you this message. Please, reflect and put down your arms, because in truth, the objectives that we set for ourselves at a national level are not within our grasp. Comrades, listen to this message of solidarity: I am grateful for your loyalty, for your courage, for your selfless generosity. Before the country and before you, I accept responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement. Thank you very much.”
The speech made him famous for two reasons. One was that he hadn’t succeeded, but that he accepted responsibility for failure and apologised. This was completely unknown from Venezuelan politicians, and made a strong impact on people.
But the most important words were the two short ones: for now. They indicated that he hadn’t given up, and that he intended to keep fighting. They were revolutionary watchwords which came true when he was released from prison and ran for President. They have burned across Latin America. For now, we must mourn Chavez. But this is not the end for the Venezuelan revolution, and around the world people will work to honour the vision outlined by the late Hugo Chavez Frias.
*In 2009 he also made the much less documented statement
“Socialists must be feminists or they won’t be complete human beings.”
He was absolutely right.