Contradictory legacy of Hugo Chávez
At this hour, Venezuelans are gathering in central Caracas, many in tears and holding portraits of their late leader Hugo Chávez, who passed after a long illness. In more well-heeled parts of the city, celebratory fireworks are going off. The right-wing opposition, and its allies in Washington and Miami, will doubtless see this as their hour. At stake is not merely the future of Venezuela, but all Latin America, given Chávez's leadership of the continent's anti-imperialist bloc. This was made clear last month when Ecuador's Rafael Correa "dedicated" his re-election to Chávez. We hope we can take Chávez at his word about how his movement transcends his personality cult. Weeks before his passing, he said: "They're thinking that Chávez is through. Chávez is not through. What's more and what I'd better tell you, when this body really gives out, Chávez will not be through, because I am no longer Chávez. Chávez is in the streets and has become the people, and has become a national essence, more than a feeling, a national body." (Quoted in Reuters, March 5)
But the recent chavista habit of serving up propaganda ammo on a silver platter for the corporate media to shoot right back at them persists even in this poignant hour. Vice President Nicolas Maduro quickly said: "We have no doubt that commander Chávez was attacked with this illness." (Reuters, March 5) This echoes the late leader's own recent comments noting the cancer diagnosis of Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: "It's very difficult to explain, even with the law of probabilities, what has been happening to some of us in Latin America. Would it be so strange that they've invented technology to spread cancer and we won’t know about it for 50 years?" (Bloomberg, Dec. 28)
The Bolivarian Revolution has made gains that must be defended—the literacy and health programs, the agrarian reform, and above all the extension of public control over the oil sector. The collapse of the attempted right-wing coup against Chávez in April 2002 was one of the most inspiring episodes in recent Latin American history. But a failure to face the uglier sides of Chávez's legacy won't serve the aim of defending these advances.
The same human rights groups that chastized Chávez's arch-enemy Bush over Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay found plenty to criticize in Bolivarian Venezuela. Human Rights Watch released a statement upon his passing entitled "Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy," noting erosion of judicial independence and press freedom, "rejection of human rights scrutiny," and embrace of "abusive governments." Amnesty International has for years raised similar concerns. (See PDF of their 2011 annual report.)
We recognize that redistribution of media conglomerate assets can be a democratization, and such principles arguably applied in the closing of RCTV, voice of the right-opposition, in 2007. But the closing of 200 radio stations in one fell swoop two years later seemed to be a stretch. Chávez also expelled Human Rights Watch from Venezuela in 2007. Now, expelling the DEA was one thing—that made us smile from ear to ear. But Human Rights Watch?
Most disturbing was Chávez's growing coziness with dictators—his uncritical embrace of Bashar Assad (even through the worst of the Syria butchery), Moammar Qaddafi (even at a time when the Libyan strongman was also being groomed by Washington as a potential proxy), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (despite dissent from Venezuelan Marxists and feminists) and Alexander Lukashenko. His eager betrayal of the Tibetans to win the good graces of Beijing was also unseemly —he called their freedom movement an example of the US "empire" "going against China." Of course he shared Ahmadinejad's habit of voicing the most vulgar 9-11 conspiracy theory.
Within Venezuela, Chávez called for government controls on the Internet such as exist in China. But an actual bid to assume dictatorial powers via a constitutional reform in 2007 was rejected by Venezuelans at the polls—and Chávez respected the vote.
Although you would never know it from either the mainstream or "alternative" media in the US, there is a left opposition in Venezuela. The campesino movement has shown signs of breaking with the regime, impatient with what it considers the slow and limited scope of the agrarian reform. And Chávez's embrace of extractivism (if under greater state control) cost him support among Venezuela's indigenous peoples. The day before his passing saw the ominous assassination of indigenous leader Sabino Romero, who opposed mining projects on the ancestral lands of his Yukpa people in the Sierra de Perijá.
The Caracas anarchist journal El Libertario issued its own statement on the leader's passing, entitled, "Neither mourning nor celebrating: time for social struggles to become autonomous!" It decried that Venezuela is caught between "two gangs in competition for Miraflores [the presidential palace] and the oil booty. Our collective response must be to not submit to their blackmail... Now is the time to...build from below a real democracy of equality, social justice and freedom."
How revolutionary is the Bolivarian Revolution? There has been no forcible upheaval of Venezuela's traditional oligarchy, but a gradual imposing of discipline over it. And the (admittedly small) left opposition has warned of a new boli-bourgeoisie, or "Bolivarian bourgeoisie," around the state industries and loyal sectors. Chávez's program was (and is) populist and anti-imperialist, but his "21st century socialism" looked a lot more like 20th century corporatism. And by that we don't mean rule by the big corporations, as the term is too frequently used today, but the older definition: a system characterized by "incorporation" of popular institutions such as trade unions and mass organizations into the apparatus of the state or ruling party. This system entails popuist content to the reigning program, but also an ethic of class collaboration rather than class struggle.
Mussolini's fascism was classically corporatist, but there were corporatist elements to FDR's New Deal as well. In Latin America, classical corporatists were Argentina's Juan Perón and Mexico's Lazaro Cárdenas, who crafted the one-party state that survived three generations. Cárdenas famously nationalized Mexico's oil in 1938—which arguably made his system more socialistic than that of Chávez.
For all the protestations of Exxon, Chávez never took over Venezuela's oil—he only mandated that foreign companies become minority partners with the state company PDVSA. And as Exxon and Conoco pulled rather than accept these terms, he was quick to woo China as a replacement. And it should be noted that Chávez never followed through on his threats to cut off oil to the US.
Hopefully, the peoples of Venezuela and Latin America can dare to dream not merely of preserving, but extending the gains of the Hugo Chávez era.