Two years ago on March 5th, the entire progressive and socialist world was given a massive shock when Venezuelan charismatic President Chavez succumbed to cancer. Chavez is a once in a 50 year phenomenon that made deep impact in Venezuela and beyond (previously it was Castro and Guevara from Cuba). Whether you love or loathe him, no can deny the impact of his presidency and government that made shockwaves in the region.
Born to a mixed ethnicity heritage, he was different to other presidents (who tend to represent white European heritage). He grew up under the care of his beloved grandmother who inspired him stories of his ancestors fighting in the revolutionary wars. When he signed up for his military college, his political discourse was shaped more by the revolutions in Panama and Peru in the 70s and his exposure to ideals of Simon Bolivar (Latin America independence hero), Simon Rodriguez (tutor to Bolivar) and Ezquiel Zamora (revolutionary peasant leader). Though Venezuela capitalized its oil boom in the 70s, the oil wealth historically did not benefit the large poor section of the society. With the onset of oil glut in the 80s, the middle class began to be decimated and first stage of neoliberalism was implemented in 1989. The dramatic rise in oil price (one of the cheapest in world) provoked societal rebellion in 1989 which resulted up to 3000 killed by government forces. Through out this period, Chavez has built a movement in the army, connecting with waning leftist forces and the 1989 repression convinced he need to make a dramatic change.
In 1992, he led a civic-military coup against democratic government of Venezuela to end the hopelessness and repression that was going on. However, it quickly failed and most importantly, he took responsibility of the coup fiasco. With his famous words (por ahora – for now) – that he failed his objective momentarily, he was thrusted as the hero of the poor. Another coup later down the year and election of new government heralded Chavez’s release in 1994. Dropping his military uniforms, he began his election campaign for the 1998 presidential elections.
His election of 1998 heralded an end to dysfunctional two-party system that governed Venezuela for 40 years. One must understand like any Latin American countries, Venezuela is a deeply divided society. There is huge wealth gap between rich and poor and this gap also take in racial terms. Venezuelan poor were systematically hidden away from world view (unless you visit Venezuela), excluded and suppressed. One must visit Caracas, the capital, to view the economic apartheid or segregation that Venezuela has to overcome. The upper class still lives in their fortress walled compounds with barbed wires. Venezuela still has two worlds, one for the rich and one of the poor – literally next to each other. Moreover, Chavez inherited a Venezuela that still glorify white supremacy and demonize non-whites such as Afro-Venezuelans and Indigeneous (as criminals). I would argue that Chavez’s gigantic impact is not so much on his charisma but to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.
Once elected, Chavez led the Bolivarian revolution to make sweeping changes in the country. One of the first major steps in the remaking of Venezuela is rewriting the constitution. It is a lasting legacy of Chavez which created 5 branches of government (instead of three). Critically, it meant the Electoral Council is now a totally independent branch. Today, Venezuela has one of the most advanced, secured and accessible election systems in the world. More than granting political rights, Venezuelan constitution of 1999 made healthcare and education free, empowering women rights, paving the transition to participatory democracy and an economy more sided to small and medium businesses. From one of the most progressive Constitution, Venezuelan dramatically reduced poverty, elimination of illiteracy and positive rise in healthcare indicators.
In order to fulfill the goals of the constitution and Millenium Development goals, Chavez government reassert a largely autonomous state oil company (critical as Venezuela is super dependent on oil reserves) and stepped tax revenue collection. Chavez personally brought OPEC together to bring about a fair oil price for the benefit of member states. However, these changes provoked a severe backlash from the existing elites and oligopolies of Venezuela. Changes to oil sector provoked the right-wing section of the military and opposition to launch a failed coup in 2002. Venezuelan poor and loyalists military quickly smashed the coup. Chavez, surprisingly gave a chance to coup-plotting opposition to turnaround. Later down the year, state oil company staged an economic lockdown which resulted the worst Venezuelan crisis in many years. With loyalist workers to the rescue, oil lockout collapsed and Venezuela capitalized a dramatic economic boom.
Meantime, Chavez began to implement his vision of multipolar world to resist the United States domination across the world. He spearheaded the collapse of Free Trade Area of Americas which was dubbed as planned annexation of Latin American Economies. He created regional alliances in Latin America, strategic partnerships with Russia, China and beyond. As far I am concerned, he could be most travelled Latin American leader in modern history. This diversification of alliance is part of his plan to steer away from American dependency on economic, political and military terms.
As the revolution began to deepen, the people took more protagonist role in shaping their destiny. In an entrenched media warfare against Venezuela, the most distorted view on Venezuela presented is revolution equals Chavez. As Chavez took a significant left turn since 2005, transition to participatory democracy and growing workers control movement started to rattle the country more. Chavistas (supporters of Chavez) are becoming the owners of their revolution and destiny. They do acknowledge and grateful of the presence of Chavez, but constantly reminded the audience that people is the revolution (not Chavez)
Although Chavez is hailed as hero of poor and the left movements, he became a detestable figure in the Venezuelan opposition circles, international media and most importantly, United States. As mentioned divisions before, the deepen Venezuelan revolution meant the power relations between rich and poor is changing like never before. Venezuela’s dominant private media constantly warring with Chavez’s government and labelling him a dictator, tyrant and any possible negative connotation. Though Venezuela is divided historically, Chavez’s policies made them so apparent in the international stage. His government policy of expropriating business, currency controls and price controls has led many of the middle class Venezuelan emigrating and made business functions very difficult. Plus, Chavez government is constantly under attack through coups, US supported opposition aligned NGOs, sabotages and threats of assassinations. Despite Venezuela has one of the lowest inequality levels in Latin America, rampant crime did not decline. Corruption in Venezuelan government (sometimes misuse of funds in participatory democracy mechanisms) remains unabated. The abolition of term limits for all elected offices have raised concerns among the opposition.
Though he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, he continued his full dedication to the revolution. However, this became more an issue when he won his presidential elections in 2012. His cancer took a worse turn later that year and realizing end was near, he announced to his supporters to vote Maduro, the VP. He was physically unable to attend his own inauguration and finally succumbed at 4.25 pm March 5th. Millions of supporters, some even travelled for days, came to pay their last respects. Such was a leader who made personal impact on every Venezuelan for the good and bad.
His super-lengthy speeches, jokes and songs are truly missed. The whole story of Venezuela now is continuing what Chavez started in the revolution. However, one must understand this saying, “Chavez is great revolutionary but he ain’t the revolution. The people of Venezuela is the revolution”
Some of the photos are credited to brigadistas