The historical debates surrounding the legacy of Hugo Chavez have begun. Perhaps one day I will join these debates. But not now. Attacks on Chavez “the dictator” or Chavez the charismatic “opponent” of the United States will demand from the left a spirited defense. Perhaps I will join such an effort in the months and years ahead. But not now. In this brief space I want to speak about Hugo Chavez as a leader who inspired a generation to believe that an alternative to capitalism could be fashioned from a reinvention of the state by the popular majorities.
The popularity of Chavez had a world-historical reach and it would not be a mistake to analyze his charismatic leadership in the context of a personality cult like that of Fidel, Che, or Subcommandante Marcos, for instance. To do this is not to diminish the importance of his role as a figure that could galvanize millions on the left and animate their faith that a more humane alternative to capitalism was a possibility, once the battle against U.S. imperialism was won. Chavez, whose father was of Indian descent and his mother, of African descent, was often the object of racial derision by the Venezuela’s white ruling elite, who did not hide their racial separateness from the rest of the Venezuelan population, four-fifths of whom could be described as indigenous-mestizo-mulatto-African. I remember one day, after a particularly long march down the streets of Caracas supporting President Chavez, I went from store-to-store in an attempt to purchase a popular Chavez doll as a souvenir. But there was not a single doll to be found. I was told that I could find one in Altamira, an affluent east Caracas neighborhood. I was surprised. A fellow camarada laughed at my expression and told me that the white ruling elite – often referred to as “esqualidos” (a colloquialism for squalid people) – had plenty of Chavez dolls available in their upscale stores. Referring to Chavez as “ese mono” (that monkey), they would tie the dolls to the bumpers of their cars and drag them through the streets.
Insinuating itself into our daily life as an ideology as much as a set of accumulation practices and processes of production, neoliberal capitalism pretends to the throne of democracy-building, but in reality it has hastened its demise. Capitalism wears a coquettish and self-effacing sheen of timelessness, inviolate consistency, and seamless immutability, but that sheen is not any more permanent than the lipstick on a mirror, or than the Barry Manilow hits played on vibraphone wafting through the shopping malls, or than one of Charles Bukowski’s famous beer farts. What makes capitalism seem indelible yet imitable is the fact that it makes certain people very rich, and these paragons of the capitalist class are those that the state media apparatuses parade in their garish media outlets – the movie stars, the corporate moguls, the trend-setters, the celebrities and the culture brokers. While news of celebrity cellulite shakes us awake with amphetamine alertness, Hollywood gossip barons, equipped with the most profound and galvanizing lucidity available, provide us commentary on which star has the best bikini body. At the same time, we remain emotionally drowsy to the pain and suffering of people who struggle and strain against falling household wealth, unemployment and lack of food and medical care. And we rarely cast our eyes south of the border.
Hugo Chavez raised the stakes for North Americans. He showed us that a President could be democratically elected many times and still direct the majority of his efforts at helping the poor and disenfranchised help themselves. He made us aware that the comfort we enjoyed in the United States was a direct result of the enforced dependency that the US created with Las Americas. He showed the world that the class struggle is no longer demarcated by men in boiler suits or railhead pants versus factory owners in top hats, continental cross ties and double-breasted vests. Or the sans-culottes versus the breech-garbed ruling class. Or financiers with capes and silver-tipped canes exploiting the labor power of frutiers, cobblers and copper miners lugging lunchpails of lost dreams. The struggle, as he would tell us in his weekly television show, Alo Presidente, is the transnational capitalist class against all those who depend upon wages for their labor. He showed us that we need cultures of contestation that are transnational in scope to end the exploitation of capitalism.
Chavez’s Bolivarian Circles (named after Simon Bolivar serve as watchdog groups modeled after Cuba’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and function as liaisons between the neighborhoods and the government as well as fomenting support for Chavez) were important in combating business leaders and dissident army generals whom, with U.S. support, were trying to overthrow the Chavez government. Members of the Bolivarian Circles would bang on hollow electricity poles to warn against mobilizations by the opposition and to rally supporters across the city’s working-class neighborhoods. They were an example of self-determination for sovereignty as evidenced by the Bolivarian declaration “Nuestra America: una Sola Patria” (Our America: one motherhood) which rejects an ideological loyalty to “America” as an America defined by a capitalist laden value system that favors imperialism and exploitation for increased profit margins. Chavez created an infrastructure for communal councils and for self-management in factories and cooperatives and for participation in social programs. This was an astonishing accomplishment because never before did the people living in the barrios have a real chance to participate in the government. For a leader to take the position of working from a preferential option of the poor and powerless and to be re-elected more times than any other leader in the western hemisphere (in the same amount of time) – and to survive a U.S.-supported coup in 2002 and oil strikes that crippled the economy- that is quite a feat. Even Jimmy Carter has praised the election process in Venezuela as among the fairest he has observed.
Chavez’s policies pointed towards the importance of ‘development from below’ which could be achieved through the democratization of the workplace by way of workers’ councils and a major shift of ownership of production, trade and credit in order to expand food production and basic necessities to the poor who inhabit the ‘internal market.’ Once President Chavez was able to control the oil industry, his government was able to reduce poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Chavez helped turn Venezuela from being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America to (after Cuba) being the most equal in terms of income.
Capitalism works through a process of exchange-value, whereas Chavez was more interested in the process of communal exchange—that is, to cite but one example, exchanging oil for medical care in a program with Cuba in which Cuban doctors were brought into Venezuela and were set up in various barrios. I remember once I was very ill with a fever off the charts and had to call a doctor, but before the doctor arrived I struggled in vain to pull my Che t-shirt over my drenched body to express a sign of solidarity from this ailing gringo. Chavez followed the principle of “buen vivir” which can be translated as “to live well.” But this term, which has indigenous roots, is very different from the North American term, “the good life.” Buen Vivir requires that individuals in their various communities are in actual possession of their rights and are able to exercise their responsibilities in the context of a respect for diversity and in accordance with the rights of ecosystems. It’s about social wealth—not material wealth.
I remember how much I enjoyed teaching at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, located near the Central University of Venezuela – part of Mission Sucre, which provides free higher education to the poor, regardless of academic qualification, prior education or nationality – housed in the ultra-delux offices of former PDVSA oil executives that Chavez had fired for their attempt to bring down the government. College enrollment doubled under Chavez. Student projects were insolubly linked to local community improvement. At a graduation ceremony in the early years of the university, Chavez famously said: “Capitalism is machista and to a large extent excludes women, that’s why, with the new socialism, girls, you can fly free.”
Chavez set up a structure to offer employment for the graduates of UBV through a Presidential Commission that enabled new graduates be placed around the country in development projects. The graduates would receive a scholarship that was slightly above the minimum wage. Some of these projects involved Mision Arbol (Tree Mission), recovering the environment damaged by capitalism such as the Guaire River. When I was first invited to Venezuela by the government to help support the Bolivarian revolution, I remember speaking at the Central University of Venezuela. The students who attend this university are mainly the children of the ruling elite. Not many were Chavistas, well, at least not when I spoke there. After I announced to the students present that I was a Chavista (Soy Chavista!), I was told later that some students in retaliation had ripped my portrait off of a mural student had created of critical theorists. Yet I was able to have very good conversations with some of the students there in the years that followed.
I was privileged to be a guest several times on Alo Presidente, once when sitting next to Ernesto Cardinal. I listened to Ernesto wax eloquently about Chavez, and Chavez’s dream of bringing humanity together through a deep spiritual love. I attended meetings of the misiones, social programs in health, education, work and housing, set up by Chavez when he came into office in 1999 to help the poor to become literate, to finish high school, to organize their communities and to get medical attention.
In 2005, when President Chavez offered residents of the Bronx a new type of program to heat homes, it was ridiculed as a cheap publicity stunt in the US media. Chavez was using the profits from his nation’s rich oil reserves to enact social spending programs, and was offering residents of the Bronx the same deal, which meant he would provide home heating oil to economically disadvantaged residents at a major discount—through Citgo—provided the savings that were made were reinvested into programs that benefitted the poor. Veteran Congressman José Serrano has since voiced his praise of Chavez for instituting this program in his district.
Although I met President Chavez half a dozen times, I only had one conversation with him. He thanked me for my work in critical pedagogy, and for my willingness to share some of my work with those in the Bolivarian revolution. But he reminded me that I have as much to learn from the people of Venezuela, and that I needed to maintain that attitude in my work. He turned out to be right.
Hugo Chavez Frias rode the Angel of History like a wild stallion across the fiery firmament of revolution, drawing back the curtain on imperialism’s ‘southern strategy,’ and advancing the cause of a twentieth century socialism. He was a solider, in essence, one with sufficient humanity to stare directly into the heart of capitalism and warn us that it pulsed with leakages of sequestered oil and that its ‘cap and trade’ compassion was market regulated. Hugo Chavez was crowned by history with a red beret and gave us pride to be warriors for social justice, marching towards a new future.