Why Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution matter to Africa

As the casket is closed and the world salutes Hugo Chavez, his legacy and meaning in Africa is examined.

Hugo Chavez dead
Hugo Chavez was the first president of Latin America to declare himself of African descent [AFP]

“President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has left us” were the words of a taxi driver picking me up at the airport in Dakar on March 5. Our mutual grief palpable, we fell into silence.  

To many in Africa, President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias and the Bolivarian revolution are a mirror to a dearly held past of dignity and struggle in our own continent and a reminder that, despite losses and entrenched systems of oppression, revolution is still possible. 

Hugo Chavez was the first president of Latin America to declare himself of African descent. In an interview with Democracy Now in 2005, Chavez reaffirmed the importance of his and Venezuelan peoples’ historic ties to the continent, stating: 

And one of the greatest motherlands of all is no doubt, Africa. We love Africa. And every day we are much more aware of the roots we have in Africa… Racism is very characteristic of imperialism. Racism is very characteristic of capitalism.  

For many, this affirmation of cultural and racial pride was a restoration of dignity. It was a proclamation as important symbolically for Venezuela’s historically marginalised population of African descendants and the entire region’s Afro-American community, as Obama’s ascendency to presidency was for African-Americans in the United States. The difference in their subsequent policies and impact on Africa has been stark.  

A counter to global bipolarity 

A superficial reading might suggest that Venezuela is an insignificant actor in Africa’s geo-political landscape. But a deeper analysis reveals a keen and distinct approach to the continent. Chavez invested energies in the recognition of the continent as a strategic partner. 

Over the years, he toured countries – including South Africa, Mozambique, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Gambia, Benin and Angola – never visited before by a Venezuelan president and almost doubled the number of Venezuelan embassies in Africa. He entered into a number of agreements, which critically shifted the monopoly of energy multinationals on the continent. 

Importantly in international forum, particularly at the United Nations, Chavez recognised the potential of alliance with Africa and the potential clout of Africa bloc support. While a large overseas development donor, Venezuela’s aid is largely distributed in neighbouring Latin American and Caribbean countries with much less significant contribution to Africa. 

However, the salient shift in the discourse of aid to one of solidarity reaffirmed a deepened critique of the power paradigm inherent in the aid and debt architecture that continues to strangle Africa. Similarly, Venezuela’s solidarity support to African Diaspora communities in Haiti and the US, along with the political solidarity to the Sahwari and Palestinian people, reminded us that principle can stand firm and act. 

Far from superfluous, as it was portrayed by the corporate media, the international hyperbolic oration of Chavez presented a critically Left voice that resonated globally, including within the peoples’ movements of Africa. 

The discursive power presented by Chavez’s leadership of an oil rich nation, therefore powerful in the energy dependent global North, cemented what is today a much needed voice in an otherwise frightening bipolarity of global discourse between, on the one hand, imperialist neo-liberal powers in the Global North and, on the other, fundamentalist conservative forces of the East and South.  

In recent years, the protracted “war on terror” has landed firmly on African soil. From Somalia to Libya and Mali, we – African people – are again caught between neo-colonial and imperialist collusion for the exploitation of our resources, and forces of fundamentalist oppression determined to homogenise our rich plurality. Chavez’s progressive discourse presented an alternative to both. 

Rabidly anti-imperialist but equally progressive, Chavez offered a discourse that resounded on the streets of Guinea, the farms of Madagascar and the squares of Egypt. These echoes remain among those silenced after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, who are neither Islamist nor militarised puppet and seek alternatives and long-lasting solutions to the despair of post-independence African realities.  

People power and determination 

Another key element of the importance of Chavez for Africa lies at the epicentre of its national struggle. The ideological differences between Chavez and the opposition not only represented clear ideological divergence on national policies but equally distinct international allies. 

With strengthened participatory systems and enhanced democratised practices, the people of Venezuela had the choice to affirm not only a candidate, but an ideological position during the elections last October. Venezuelan people of all stripes are much more informed and actively engaged in the determination of their nation and peoples’ destiny than they have ever been.  

The democratic choice and participation of the Venezuelan people stands in striking contrast to the quandary of false choices we often face in electoral battles in Africa. 

Elections, more often than not, leave little alternative space for African peoples to construct a vision and programme of self-determination for our times. Instead, our elections often pit economically marginalised Africans against one another using differences of culture, religion or gender to incite violence. 

During the oil price slump of 2008, Chavez drew criticism at home for not concentrating on internal Venezuelan affairs rather than drawing the wrath of imperialist states during long international speeches. He heeded this warning and cut back on international engagements and visits.  

However, he maintained an important role in Latin American relations. His leadership of a significant power in the region created a domino effect and enabled the surfacing and victory of progressive parties from Ecuador to Argentina ending the decades of isolation of Cuba. 

Chavez was instrumental in creating and maintaining the alliance across South America (and to a lesser extent Meso-America and the Caribbean), which has enabled a weakening of North American clout and the creation of alternative institutions, like Banco del Sur and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), that capture the needs of the region and the will of its people.  

The building of tangible and concrete self-determined paths, alternatives, institutions and processes has been inspirational to Africans everywhere who are fighting to democratise our realities and resist the onslaught on our continent. 

We will not look East, West or even South, but at ourselves and create blueprints for sustained life for all. The consequences for these attempts in Africa have been great: Africa is strategically critical to every power on this earth and the stakes are high. 

What the Venezuelan people’s determination has proved is that despite the counterweight of money and power, a people united behind a comprehensive plan can recreate a nation. 

‘Hasta siempre Presidente’ 

On March 10, I went to offer my condolences to the people of Venezuela at the embassy in Dakar. Those present were, for the most part, diplomats from multiple embassies: men in suits with protocol. 

As I waited my turn to sign the book of condolences, a man approached me asking whether I would forego my turn to let the diplomats pass before me given how busy they are with important things. I smiled at him and asked, “Are we not all Chavistas here?” He appeared bewildered by my skirting of patriarchy and capitalist hierarchies so deeply entrenched in our psyche. 

I went on to explain that I would gladly give my place to the next person if there is urgency, but we need not create hierarchies amongst mourners. It is the people of Africa – the drivers of taxis, domestic workers, small vendors, fishermen and peasants – who may not have the opportunity to offer condolences, but have understood the value of Africa’s Venezuelan son; not uncritically, but in comradeship.  

Revolution is sluggish. It is going door-to-door and building from the base, it is patience and hardship, learning and trying daily. We can no longer wait for the singular charismatic leader. But, we remain with the knowing that today it is possible; that vision, tenacity and love will move the people who will determine the path of justice and equity. 

Chavez will be remembered by those of us challenging imperialism, neo-colonialism and fundamentalism, and we will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Venezuela.

We all must reach across waters to deepen solidarity between the people of Africa, the Americas and the world in order to break the bipolarity of increasingly belligerent imperialist and fundamentalist forces. They say “Chavez did not die, he multiplied!” – let it be so. 

Hakima Abbas is a political scientist, policy analyst and activist. Her work as a trainer, strategist and researcher, has focused on strengthening and supporting movements for change in Africa and the Middle East. She is a board member and adviser to several global philanthropic and civil society initiatives. 

Follow her on Twitter: @HakimaAbbas