Latin America

Looking Back: Hugo Chavez

Now, with the left wing government of Venezuela in crisis, it’s useful to look back. At the time of the death of Hugo Chavez (2013), we wrote the following. In the next week, we will have more on the present situation in Venezuela.

Chavez Dies; Wall St. Journal Celebrates:

The Legacy of Hugo Chavez


John Reimann

The day after Hugo Chavez died, the Wall St. Journal editors exulted. They condemned him for a long

Hugo Chavez

list of failures and sins, including alleged repression, high murder rates, inflation, social chaos and mass suffering. They concluded: “Let’s hope Venezuelans… bury the tragic legacy of Chavismo alongside its author’s corpse.”

And yet, their news article which reported on his death commented that “for a majority of Venezuelans, Mr. Chavez was a messiah.”

How very odd.

Chavez Reforms

Under Chavez’s regime, poverty was cut nearly in half while extreme poverty was almost eliminated. “Six million children receive free meals a day; near-universal free health care has been established; and education spending has doubled as a proportion of GDP. A housing programme launched in 2011 built over 350,000 homes, bringing hundreds of thousands of families out of sub-standard housing in the barrios.” (“Independent” newspaper, March 6, 2013) Maybe it’s not so very odd after all.

Venezuela in 2005

While I was visiting Venezuela in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was raging across the US Gulf region. Many people in Venezuela expressed extreme concern for the suffering here in this country. They also expressed high optimism for the future of their country – an optimism I have never seen in any other country I’ve visited. From 80+ year-old grandmothers to secretaries to industrial workers to police recruits, there was a general support for Chavez and a hope for the future.

For some on the left, Chavez was a revolutionary hero almost beyond criticism. The International Marxist Tendency (IMT), for instance, wrote “The cause of freedom, socialism and humanity has lost a courageous champion.” They admit to problems and hesitancy of the Chavez movement, but the ascribe this purely to the bureaucrats and others surrounding Chavez. Now, on the event of his passing (on the same date as the birth of Rosa Luxembourg 142 years earlier), socialists and the workers’ movement should stand back and try to sum up what he and the movement to which he was so central represented. In this confused period, and without long term direct experience in Venezuela, it is impossible to go beyond some general and tentative conclusions.

Chavez’s Origins

Chavez was elected in 1998 through a campaign organized through a layer of mid level military officers. As has been the case in other underdeveloped, former colonial nations, this layer of the military was dissatisfied with the corrupt nature of Venezuela’s ruling elite. They wanted to see a nation that was not so dominated and degraded by US capitalism.

A brilliant politician, and one with real roots in the Venezuelan masses, Chavez quickly realized that the only way to accomplish this was to build a base amongst those masses. The vast oil wealth provided his regime with the opportunity to do so. This was as opposed to the Venezuelan oligarchy, a corrupt and degenerate bunch even by Latin American standards, who had used this wealth for vacations in Miami and who had exported massive amounts of money to the US and elsewhere. This is exactly why these oligarchs hated Chavez so much. He confiscated much of their wealth. As well, he brought the working class into politics. Maids and factory workers, taxi drivers and street sweepers – for the first time they were activated and involved. Politics was no longer the exclusive preserve of the “squalid ones”, as Chavez called the oligarchs.

Attempted Coup Pushes Chavez to Left

In April of 2002, these oligarchs in collaboration with the CIA, some top generals as well as the tops of the Venezuelan Catholic Church hierarchy organized a coup and ousted Chavez. Mass demonstrations led to a rebellion of the troops and the coup collapsed. Chavez was returned to power. Then in December of that year, a “strike” was organized at the oil refineries. This “strike” was by the top technicians and bosses. There is evidence that they had sabotaged the plants such that, if not caught, they would have blown up, killing hundreds. Fortunately, the workers did catch this apparent sabotage.

These experiences pushed Chavez to the left. He apparently realized that no movement forward was possible without the most vicious resistance of the oligarchs and their supporters. He started more openly raising the idea of socialism – “socialism of the 21st century” he called it.

Revolution from Above?

Chavez’s problem was that no social transformation, much less a socialist revolution (and that is what is required for socialism – a revolution) can occur through the role of a single individual. It requires the role of the working class. And the working class cannot play that role if it is not organized, if it lacks its own organization, meaning a workers’ political party. Chavez realized this and called for the creation of a new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). But here, again, it seems Chavez was hemmed in by his past base.

Just as no wider social change can come from above, no mass workers’ party can be so organized either. Even the IMT admits that a bureaucracy surrounds Chavez and has a vast influence within the PSUV.

Balanced Between Classes

It seems that Chavez can best be described as having been a political leader who balanced between the classes. The Venezuelan oligarchy – that elite of the Venezuelan capitalist class, tiny in numbers, corrupt and degenerate and almost entirely lacking a base of support – could not rule directly. It’s rule was often imposed through military coups. However, even layers of the military were disenchanted with the oligarchy. On the other hand, the working class was not sufficiently organized to take power itself. This created a tremendous vacuum into which Chavez stepped.

Once in office, he was driven further to the left by the events of 2002. He rested even more on the working class. However, it does not appear that he was ever firmly based upon – controlled by – that working class. He called for he formation of the PSUV, but again such a party of the working class cannot be built from above. He called for a new workers’ international – a “Fifth International” – but that was stillborn.

International Links

Chavez understood that no nation can stand in isolation, so he moved to built international alliances. Under Chavez, trade with China went from under $500 million per year to $7.5 billion in 2009. Military links were also formed as in 2008 a joint Chinese/Venezuelan space satellite was launched. Chavez also built links with other Latin American regimes as well as others in the Mid East, most famously (or infamously) with the reactionary Iranian regime.

The world crisis of capitalism hemmed Chavez in further, and Venezuelan foreign debt increased as did the inflation rate. Workers in some regions started to rebel. In August of 2012 Chavez spoke at the opening of a new dam in Venezuela. According to reports, Chavez was interrupted by chanting workers who were demanding a new labor contract.

In fact, according to another report, Chavez appealed to sectors of the Venezuelan capitalist class in the last elections. According to another report on the web site, Chavez spoke at one election rally in a wealthy district and commented: “Not all rich people are against Chavez. No, they are not. There are rich people who are fully aware of the work Chavez has been doing for everyone so as to bring some stability to the country. That benefits them…. Here are my friends from private banking. Let’s give applause for the bankers who are working with us…. A victory for the big bourgeoisie would destabilize our country and this is not in the interests of even the rich, as they like tranquility.” He is also reported to have praised the role of Chevron and Texaco in Venezuela. (

Mixed Legacy

Thus, Chavez leaves a mixed legacy. Under his leadership, the lives of the majority, especially the

One of the stores for the poor that Chavez established.

poorest Venezuelans, improved. This was due to the different programs Chavez instituted. His role also helped stimulate and arouse layers of the working class. He also popularized the idea of socialism. These are major accomplishments, ones important enough to have won the undying hatred of the Wall St. Journal. On the other hand, he was unable to build an organized working class base due to his own origins, which he could not escape. As a result, at times he had to seek support amongst layers of the enemy of the working class – layers of the capitalist class.

His role could perhaps be compared with that of the old Lazaro Cardenas, President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940. He, too, carried out massive reforms including redistribution of land to the peasants and nationalization of Mexico’s oil wealth. Revered to this day, Cardenas was the founder of the party (the PRI) that ruled Mexico for decades. At times, the PRI balanced on the working class and/or the peasantry and struck blows against the capitalist class. At times it did the opposite.

This, perhaps, may be the future of “Chavismo” and the PSUV.

Key Global Issue

Then, of course, there is one last issue, and it is the single most important issue for the entire planet: That is the issue of global climate disruption/global warming. This process is driven by the burning of fossil fuel, and Venezuela’s wealth – and Chavez’s reforms – are largely based on its oil reserves. During his time in office, Chavez never dealt with this contradiction between the needs of the planet and Venezuela’s oil wealth. It is difficult to see how the ensuing regime will be able to either.

For that, the entire reorganization of production is required, and that can only be carried out by a true “bottom-up” revolution.

Hugo Chavez

Categories: Latin America

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