Last night chants of “¡Chávez vive, la lucha sigue!” (Chávez lives, the battle continues!) erupted in La Plaza Bolivar, Caracas- a fitting tribute to a Latin American leader who represented not himself, but an idea, and a struggle. The next few months will determine whether ‘the battle’ will indeed continue, and whether ‘Chavismo without Chavez’ can survive.
Born in rural Venezuela, Chavez forewent university to become a history teacher at the Caracas Military Academy. In 1982, frustrated with the neoliberalism that condemned the lives of millions of poor Venezuelans, he formed a Bolivarian revolutionary movement that went on to lead a coup d’état at the end of the decade. His movement followed the path laid out by Simon Bolivar, the South American independence leader. The coup attempt failed, but Chavez’s apology for failure ended by saying the struggle was over “por ahora” (for now).
These two words gave hope to a nation that, on his return, would adopt an alternative to the dominant ‘Washington Consensus’ economic model of privatisation, deregulation and austerity. Consequentially, this alternative became known as ‘21st Century Socialism’. Upon his dramatic return to politics in 1998, his presidency showed that socialism could offer a ‘Third Way’ between discredited free-market capitalism and the flawed Soviet model.
It is not often that the facts speak for themselves, but in the case of Hugo Chavez, they do. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, Venezuela now has the lowest level of inequality in the region. Poverty has fallen from 70% in 1996, to 23% in 2009, and over 90% of Venezuelans now eat three meals a day for the first time in the country’s history.
Chavez was vilified in Western media, invariably described as ‘controversial’, a ‘firebrand’, ‘egotistical’. But Chavez’s passion and anti-US rhetoric were reasonably motivated– the USA supported a coup attempt against him in 2002, a coup only stopped when millions of Venezuelans took to the streets to demand their elected President back. It worked, and the revolutionary leaders humiliatingly backed down. Had the coup succeeded, the ‘Pink Tide’ of Latin America would have crumbled and the region returned to the disastrous policies of the neoliberal era.
His death, of course, was not unexpected. A rally last week of more than 100,000 supporters, many carrying banners declaring “We are Chávez”, accepted his fate. But ‘we are Chavez’ represents a popular feeling among the majority of the country’s 19 million voters (81% of whom voted last Autumn) – that Chavismo is more than one individual.
Venezuela’s ‘threat of a good example’ will survive. His last tweet, ‘¡Hasta la victoria siempre! ¡Viviremos y venceremos!’ (Ever onward to victory! We will live and overcome!) has become one of the most popular in history, and his memory will live on beyond the grave-dancing obituary pages of our right-wing newspapers. Chavez will be remembered as an inspirational leader around the world for those who continue to look for an alternative to austerity. Chavismo without Chavez will indeed ‘live and overcome’. It is now up to the Venezuelan people to lead the way.
[I’ve now recorded an acoustic song – free to listen to and download from Soundcloud here – about Chavez and the Venezuelan people, called ‘Live and Overcome’, based on thoughts from this article and others. This comment piece is cross-posted from my obituary of Chavez for York Vision, a University of York student newspaper.]