In 2009 in the northern Venezuelan city of Barcelona, I approached an elderly street sweeper and asked to purchase her baseball cap, which was red and featured a Hugo Chavez-related slogan.
As I saw it, the item would be an optimal addition to my collection of revolutionary paraphernalia, which thus far consisted of posters, flags, and a CD containing various musical performances by Chavez himself – most of them upbeat numbers critiquing the Venezuelan political opposition.
The woman, however, refused the offer despite my best efforts at capitalist persuasion. I left empty-handed.
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Such levels of devotion to the former president, who died one year ago, are not uncommon among sectors of the Venezuelan population.When my friend and I inserted ourselves into the February 2009 pro-Chavez referendum campaign as a means of acquiring oversized pink Chavez t-shirts, we caught a glimpse of the individual commitment and collective energy sustaining Venezuela’s Bolivarian project, and were treated to more than one teary-eyed tribute to its leader.
According to many of the campaigners, the countless hours spent mobilising for the vote – conveniently held on Valentine’s Day weekend – was a labour of true love.
Of course, Chavez inspired a different range of emotions in his detractors. The victory of the referendum, which abolished presidential term limits, elicited the following comment from opposition leader Omar Barboza to the Associated Press: “Effectively this will become a dictatorship”.
Leave it to the Venezuelan opposition to detect something dictatorial about putting political issues to a vote by the nation’s citizenry. As historian Greg Grandin noted in his Chavez obituary for The Nation last March: “Over the last 14 years, Chavez has submitted himself and his agenda to 14 national votes, winning 13 of them by large margins, in polling deemed by Jimmy Carter to be ‘best in the world’ out of the 92 elections that he has monitored.”
Beyond relentless elections, Grandin cites “[t]he participatory democracy that took place in barrios, in workplaces and in the countryside” during the Chavez era and credits grassroots organisations and social movements for their “heroic work in democratising society, in giving citizens venues to survive the extremes of neoliberalism and to fight against further depredations”.
It is this landscape that prompts Grandin’s contention: “Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.” Indeed, what drove the Venezuelan elite particularly mad about Chavez was the opening up of political space to the previously marginalised masses – overturning as it did the exclusivist system.
What drove the Venezuelan elite particularly mad about Chavez was the opening up of political space to the previously marginalised masses – overturning as it did the exclusivist system.
Nor was the president himself exempt from the subhuman status assigned by Venezuelan high society to the poor, the blacks, and the indigenous. Apparently worthy of classification in a whole different primate category, Chavez was sometimes portrayed in the opposition media as a monkey.
In his acclaimed book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Richard Gott describes Venezuela under Chavez as a “vanguard” country where ethnic issues were “being brought out into the open, where the white racist opposition… has been most vocal, and where the government has come down most decidedly on the side of the blacks and the indigenous peoples”.
At the start of his presidency, for example, Chavez presided over the insertion of indigenous rights into the national constitution.
The course of his leadership was then characterised by wild reductions in poverty and income inequality, which suggests the disingenuousness of media insistence on branding him an inherently “divisive” figure. As I’ve pointed out before, the man’s alleged divisiveness – in fact – lay in his crusade to rectify institutionalised societal divisions favouring an oppressive elite.
Time for an oil change
A major component of this crusade – which has caused wealthy Venezuelans to portray themselves as victims despite their continued wealth – has been a more just distribution of oil revenues.
Gott recalls the following accomplishment during Chavez’s second term as president: “For the first time, the government was able, as it were, to seize the nation’s oil pipelines and to point them directly into the shanty towns and the rural areas.”
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This metaphorical rewiring saw massive funds thrown at social programmes called “missions”, including Mission Barrio Adentro, a joint Venezuelan-Cuban initiative offering free health care to all Venezuelans as well as – apparently – to visitors from the imperial nemesis to the north. My medical needs, at least, were very courteously attended to in 2009.
According to Steve Brouwer’s 2011 book Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care, the nationwide system already boasted nearly 7,000 walk-in offices and over 500 larger diagnostic clinics. Missions have also been established to address unemployment, illiteracy, hunger, and a host of other issues. But how sustainable is oil as fuel for social change?
As Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, recently put it to me: “It’s one thing to try to overthrow capitalism, but how do you overthrow a century of dependence on oil and all the economic and bureaucratic distortion that has produced?”
Venezuela’s “resource curse” means the country “essentially produces no value and buys foreign technology to extract money from the ground”, he noted, adding that “the best political minds and the best political intentions still can’t beat the corrosive power of oil”.
This quandary appears even more insuperable in light of the current project by the less well-intentioned Venezuelan opposition to overthrow social progress and re-launch the country as a neoliberal theme park.
Clearly, the applicability of the Chavez model-in-progress is restricted by the finite nature of oil resources. But on the anniversary of his death, we can at least applaud his efforts to make an anti-human system a little more human.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.