President Hugo Chávez dedicated his life to the poor people of Venezuela. He transformed their lives and transformed their country.
On March 6, the day after his death, I spent 11 hours waiting with friends to pay my respects as his body was slowly transported through the city. It took much longer than expected, as hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets and the giant stadium where the procession ended to get a glimpse of the passing casket. The crowds sang and clapped along with popular songs about “El Comandante”, shouting: "Chávez lives, the struggle continues!" "The people united will never be defeated!" “I am Chávez!” When the body finally arrived at night in the National Military Academy for viewing, the line of people waiting was almost two kilometers (one mile) long!
Why did so many people go? Why were they willing to wait so long? And instead of being a somber occasion with everyone dressed in black, why did so many wear bright red T-shirts, or headbands with the national colors, and why were they singing and shouting slogans?
Venezuela is an example of a country that seems to have undergone a class change through a nonviolent electoral process. Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chávez, a career military officer, organized 130 officers and nearly 900 soldiers, approximately ten percent of the Venezuelan military, to attempt a military rebellion in 1992 to overthrow dictator President Carlos Andrés Pérez and end his reign of corruption, censorship and abuse of human rights. Though they failed, Chávez became a popular hero. After two years in prison he received amnesty, starting an electoral campaign among the poor that won him the presidency at the end of 1998. As of December 2012, his coalition has won 16 out of 17 national elections due to his successful consciousness-raising and politicization among the masses.
The capitalist-led opposition attempted a military overthrow of Chávez in 2002 with U.S. government knowledge and support; yet two days later the masses and the military united and brought him back from the island naval base where he was held prisoner. After that, Chávez became much more strident in his rhetoric about class warfare against the oligarchy, calling them “squalids.” Socialist and military values have influenced the masses to a great extent in terms of participatory democracy, grassroots communal councils, the new national police force and other initiatives.
The heads of the Venezuelan Central Bank and economic ministry are not bankers, but revolutionaries, orchestrating government buyouts of key industries at an accelerating rate, with more than 200 expropriations of private enterprises in 2010 alone. Chávez has announced that he is committed to “the elimination of capitalism”. Government-owned and community media influence the masses with values of solidarity, people’s power and socialism for the twenty-first century. Many capitalists have fled to Miami and elsewhere, and while others remain, they are frustrated and nervous because they are no longer in power.
For the first time in the history of Venezuela, a president used the profits from the country's petroleum sales to fund social programs, such as building schools and hiring teachers so every child would go to school, starting free universities, building hospitals and health clinics in every barrio and country village that have saved thousands of lives each year.
In the hills of Vargas, a group of rural women told me how in the past when someone in their village got sick and died, it would take them two days to carry the body down to the cemetery for burial, and when they returned, sometimes there was another dead body waiting for them, because there was no clinic they could go to. Now there are clinics everywhere. With the help of the Women's Bank, they have formed successful agricultural cooperatives that give them all a steady income. They swore they would never go back to the terrible poverty they suffered before Hugo Chávez changed their lives.
Chávez pioneered barter trade, signing bilateral barter agreements with developing countries, swapping Venezuelan oil for other products or services the country needed, including 50,000 Cuban doctors and dentists who provide free medical care in city slums and remote rural villages.
Chávez put the condition of the poor people on the national agenda. Voter registration has dramatically increased, and polling places have increased. More than 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in the 2012 presidential election (compared to less than 59 percent of voters in the United States who cast their ballot that year). Today even the anti-Chávez candidates say that if elected they, too, will continue the social projects in order to try to win the majority of voters. In 1998, when Chávez was first elected, all the houses in the villages of Barlovento in Miranda, were made of mud and in very bad condition due to regular flooding. The state governor, Henrique Capriles, who ran against Chávez in 2012, made significant loans to the poor people so that now nearly all the houses in the villages are built with cement blocks.
Ten years ago, on June 1, 2003, I was invited to meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on his weekly television show to present the Spanish edition of my first Prout book, which was published in Caracas. I told him that I was inspired by the words of Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the founder of Prout, at the end of his 1979 visit to Caracas, in which he said, “Venezuela needs good spiritual political leaders. If Venezuela can produce spiritual political leaders, it will not only be the leader of Latin America, it will also be the leader of the planet. Venezuela is a blessed country.”
President Chávez said, “Dada Maheshvarananda has given us a book that we appreciate very much. Your visit has come at such an opportune moment…. Thank you very much, brother, and let’s continue with spirituality, spirit, good faith, morality, and the mystical force that moves the world. Dada Maheshvarananda and other citizens of the world are welcome to visit, especially those who come in good faith and offer their ideas, their spirit and their moral flame to the Bolivarian Revolution. This has attracted the attention of the whole world, especially those that struggle and dream of a better world, just as it says in After Capitalism: Prout’s Vision for a New World.”
In December 2003 and again in 2005 the national petroleum company of Venezuela (PDVSA) contracted for me and other Proutists to give a series of training courses and lectures about the Prout model. Then in 2007 we founded the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela in Caracas as an independent, not-for-profit foundation. A major reason we did this was because of how closely the goals of Prout's socio-economic model were shared by the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by President Chávez.
Prout asserts that the first priority of any economy should be to guarantee the minimum requirements of life (food, clothing, housing, education and medical care), the right to live, to all people. Subsidized food staples are sold very cheaply in government supermarkets throughout the country, and public schools now provide free lunches to all students, both of which significantly reduce the money spent by poor people to feed their families. Free education and health care for all has been achieved, too, with college enrollment doubling. During 2012 the government built more than 200,000 houses and gave them to needy families, and it plans to build a total of two million homes by 2018. His government reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Eligibility for public pensions tripled. As someone who has spent his life working with the poor, I am deeply grateful for these very impressive accomplishments – so are the masses who poured out to the streets yesterday.
Community empowerment is another key component of Prout's economic democracy; Chávez initiated the system of communal councils with cooperative banks that decide for themselves which local projects they will fund – 33,000 are now running throughout the country.
Though many complaints have been made in the world media about how Chávez has “destroyed” the Venezuelan economy, economic growth actually increased to 5.6 percent in 2012. The conservative International Monetary Fund calculates the country’s gross public debt last year at 51.3 percent of GDP, but Europe has more than 90 percent! The foreign part of this debt was only 4.1 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings. Inflation is high, but lower than before he came to office.
Food sovereignty, to produce enough food to feed the entire population, has not yet been achieved, but it is another goal common to both the Bolivarian government and Prout.
Chávez wanted to transform the profit-oriented capitalist economy into one oriented towards endogenous and sustainable social development by involving those who had been marginalized or excluded. From 2002 he inspired the phenomenal creation of 262,904 registered cooperatives by the end of 2008, but many of these never became active or collapsed. The national cooperative supervision institute, SUNACOOP, recognizes about 70,000 as functioning, which is still the highest total for any country after China.
The majority of Venezuelan cooperatives have few members who are unskilled. Because of the high rate of failure among the registered cooperatives, in 2005 the president shifted the government’s support from cooperatives to socialist enterprises and worker takeovers of factories. In this way, the government pays the salaries, but keeps the ownership. Prout, on the other hand, supports cooperatives that are worker-owned as well as worker-managed.
Of course there are problems in Venezuela; a couple of them are very serious. Corruption and crime hurt everyone. Their causes are many; to solve these problems requires the help of all the people – for this a major consciousness-raising campaign is required in every level of education, through the mass media and in every government office. Consciousness-raising and popular education are also key to reducing pollution and protecting the environment, another serious problem.
If the impact of these problems was reduced, many more people of the middle class could be inspired to support this revolution. Unfortunately the revolutionary rhetoric of Chávez was often insulting towards his opponents – listening sincerely to valid complaints is necessary to open dialog and build bridges so that an ever greater majority of Venezuelans participate constructively in the Bolivarian project.
Hugo Chávez was a very strong man who led his people through a tremendous social transformation. He has died, but his vision of a more just and more democratic society continues to inspire the masses of Venezuela and remains very much alive.