On March 5, 2013 Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, passed away after a two year battle with cancer. Chavez will be remembered as a leader who was created by the conditions of Venezuela at the time, one who was created by the peoples struggles for justice. He was an anti-imperialist who stood up to the United States and its aggression, survived several attempts to oust him, and became an inspiration to oppressed and exploited peoples and their allies around the world. His death is one greater than Mount Tai, as it was for the people.
Chavez came to prominence in the aftermath of the events in 1989 known as the Caracazo. Spontaneous protests by the masses of Venezuela occurred after increased transportation fees imposed due to IMF austerity measures. The great majority of Venezuela living in poverty or extreme poverty, these new fees were the last straw, and thousands mobilized from the slums around Caracas into the city. The protests were met with extreme repression by the military, with estimates of between 200 to 2000 people killed. Being the same year as Tiananmen Square, it is no surprise to see what event the world remembered that year. By that time the two-party system that governed the country based on mandates from Washington and international financial institutions was becoming more illegitimate.
Chavez at the time was a lieutenant colonel and also a founder of a left wing group within the military influenced by the ideas of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America from Spanish rule. In 1992 Chavez and other officers attempted a coup against the neoliberal government of Carlos Andres Perez. The coup failed, and Chavez in an agreement with his captors went on national television to speak to loyal troops he was out of contact with, as well as the rest of the Venezuelan nation. He stated that their objectives have not been met “por ahora” (for now) and took full responsibility for the preceding actions. This action resonated with the people of Venezuela who were used to unaccountable leaders, and crystallized Chavez as a future leader. His popularity led the government to reduce the years of his sentence, and by the time he was released in 1994 he helped found the Movement for the Bolivarian Republic political party. He later won the 1998 presidential election with an overwhelming majority and a clear mandate for social change.
While in office Chavez initiated a restructuring of the political system through a popular referendum on changing the constitution. Many people participated in the change, and it was common to see Venezuelans with copies of the constitution with them at every time. Supporters of Chavez also got elected into the government, and they created many social programs to aid the people of Venezuela, of whom nearly 80 percent were living in poverty. Many experiments in participatory democracy were created. He also became an outspoken opponent of Amerikan imperialism, and steered Venezuela and subsequently other countries in Latin America toward an independent path. Their alliance with Cuba and other regional countries led to the formation of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, an alternative trade alliance from those controlled by Washington.
Chavez’ policies led to opposition from both Washington and the oligarchy of Venezuela, often times colluding to sabotage the country. The press in both countries have long demonized Chavez, yet he has been elected several times in elections with great majorities. This has not stopped his opponents from attempting to oust him. In April 2002 an opposition protest and the events behind it led to a coup that temporarily ousted Chavez and installed former elites in the government, where they dissolved the institutions that Chavez helped set up. The mobilization of the Venezuelan people and loyalty of most of the military resulted in Chavez being put back in power two days later, and most of the plotters arrested or fleeing the country. Later that year he also faced a management-initiated oil strike that threatened to destabilize the economy. The strike later fizzled.
Chavez has proclaimed that he is taking Venezuela to “21st century socialism.” While it can be debated on how near the policies are to socialism, it is clear that he presented a viable alternative to the US-imposed neoliberal capitalism and began a process of economic restructuring to serve people over imperialism. He worked to nationalize the country’s oil industry and use its wealth to benefit the people instead of oligarchs and foreign interests. His rhetoric of socialism is in response to pressure from the Venezuelan masses, as Chavez has played a middle ground between the old upper class power interests and the demands of the people. Several programs were begun that improved the lives of average people such as subsidized food stores, and brought real results. Poverty was drastically reduced, and extreme poverty was nearly eliminated. The election of Chavez also began a series of elections of other left-leaning leaders in Latin America, all in different ways challenging U.S. dominance in the continent. He made strong ties with Cuba, where they traded oil for doctors serving Venezuelan communities. Chavez was treated in Cuba for his cancer. Chavez also made alliances with anti-hegemonic leaders around the world such as Ahmedinajad of Iran, Gaddafi of Libya, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and other official enemies of the U.S. Overall Chavez helped inspire revolutionary minded peoples all around the world.
The passing of Hugo Chavez brings uncertainty to the revolutionary process in Venezuela. His vice president Nicolas Maduro will become interim president and new elections will be held a month from now. Despite his accomplishments Chavez was far from perfect, and one flaw was an over-reliance on his charismatic leadership. It will be up to the revolutionary peoples of Venezuela to continue their struggles they begun before Chavez, and will continue after him. Bolivian president Evo Morales, a close ally, said of Chavez that he “is more alive than ever,” and he “will continue to be an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation.” History is made by the masses, and the masses of the world, in Venezuela and elsewhere, are the ones who will bring down imperialism and bring about socialism, a world that is just and worth living in. We mourn our allies who have come and gone, and continue that struggle until victory.