Hugo Chavez Frias and the Sense of History


Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias delivered a major summary of his government’s current international initiatives today at an event which combined a moment of intense Venezuelan-Cuban diplomatic and commercial interactions with the meetings of the Fourth Hemispheric Conference Against the FTAA. For listeners accustomed to the thin gruel of platitudes, Orwellian inversions and vacuous cheerleading into which North American political rhetoric seems to have declined, a Chavez Frias speech can be a heady experience.  The Venezuelan president shares with his friend and ally Fidel Castro Ruz an oratorical style that moves effortlessly through a wide gamut of effects, from self-deprecating banter to sustained historical analysis, from invective to geopolitical strategizing and impassioned declarations of the political ethics of what he calls the Bolivarian revolution.

Like President Castro, Chavez Frias possesses a stamina that might well make classical rhetoricians from Demosthenes to Cicero green with envy. He spoke, without notes, for more than three hours in Havana’s Karl Marx Theatre to an audience of conference participants and students from the medical and other faculties of Havana’s institutes of higher education. His subject: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which Venezuela and Cuba announced on December 14, 2004 as a principled alternative to the project of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA, or in Spanish, ALCA) which the United States has been pushing since 2001, first as an all-encompassing agreement modelled on NAFTA and the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) which the U.S. hoped to have approved by January 1, 2005, and subsequently in the form of bilateral and regional agreements into which single nations like Chile or groups of small nations like the Central American states might more easily be bullied.

According to Chavez Frias, one defining moment in his movement from protest to alternative proposal was his first meeting with President Castro in Havana in December 1994.  This coincided with the Miami Summit of the Americas, at which U.S. President Bill Clinton famously (and fatuously) declared: “Now we can say that the dream of Simon Bolivar has come true in all the Americas.”  That declaration, Chavez Frias said to today, “was a slap in the face of history, and a slap in the face for all of us who know our history and the ideals to which Bolivar devoted his life.”

A second defining moment for him was the Quebec City FTAA Summit of April 2001. Those among the more than 70,000 demonstrators who endured what Chavez Frias today called “gas warfare” (guerra de gaz) at the “wall of shame” that surrounded the Quebec citadel on that memorable occasion will be gratified to learn that the protests of that weekend made an indelibel impression on one at least of the 31 government leaders sheltered within the fortress.

Chavez Frias recalled from that weekend the bullying behaviour of U.S. diplomats, and of their president–to whom he referred, in a mocking allusion to Gallegos’ classic novel {Donna Varvara], as “Mr. Danger.” He recalled as well the suave hospitality of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien–and his boast that the infamous wall was “anti-globalizationist-proof (a boast that was refiuted by the protesters who, on arriving at the wall, immediately pulled down a fifty-metre section of it).

In a discourse liberally salted with literary and historical references, Chavez Frias paid homage to two recently deceased writers: to Andre Gunder Frank, whose books include the classic study {Underdevelopment or Revolution}; and to the Uruguayan Ide Augustas, from whom he quoted the acerbic remark that “Globalization is a mask, a high-sounding term behind which crouches an evil intention, the old vice of colonialism.” Turning to address the international media, Chavez Frias cited the no less acid remark of Eduardo Galeano that “Never in history have so many been deceived by so few.”  He then remembered, for the benefit of the U.S. media especially, an earlier moment of Cuban-Venezuelan cooperation for which the United States has every reason to feel enduring gratitude. During the American Revolution, sympathetic Cuban women raised more than one thousand pounds for the cause.

This substantial contribution was delivered to the insurgent thirteen colonies by the Venezuelan captain Francisco de Miranda, who deserted from the Spanish imperial army in Havana and became a valued colleague of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Chavez Frias went on to remember the manner in which the emergent “colossus of the north” repaid this act of generosity by contributing in the 1820s to the defeat of Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America.

But now, he declared, ten years and five months after Bill Clinton’s empty appropriation of the name of Bolivar, “Now truly the dream of Bolivar is beginning to move toward fulfilment.” Chavez Frias quoted the proposal of Brazil’s President Lula, during what he called “a historic visit” to Caracas, that if the nineteenth century was the century of Europe and the twentieth century the century of the United States, the possibility is now emerging of making the twenty-first century the century of Latin America. It is in this context that the ALBA, the dawn, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, is to be understood.

The aim is a process of comprehensive integration aimed at developing “the social state, in the interests not of elites but of the people.” The trade regimnes proposed, and imposed, by the United States have empowered corporate elites, and have resulted in a neoliberal looting of countries like Argentina and Mexico (to mention only two of the most prominent victims). They have also resulted in the devastation of agricultural economies and the further immiseration of working people and of indigenous nations.

The ALBA, in contrast, seeks to empower the people at large, and holds out the utopian, revolutionary-democratic hope of eliminating poverty. The goal, Chavez Frias said, is “integration for life–not colonialism, but the happiness of our peoples.”

Forty-nine distinct documents of the ALBA have been signed between Cuba and Venezuela, or are in advanced stages of discussion.  Initiatives involving other countries are also being developed.  An exemplary feature of the ALBA is the fluidity of exchanges of goods and services in a manner that sidesteps international banking systems and corporatist trading interests.

Thus Venezuela, in exchange for exports of oli and building materials to Cuba, is currently benefitting from the work of nearly 20,000 Cuban doctors who have opened medical clinics in barrios and rural communities that had never previously enjoyed medical services, while Cuban-staffed literacy programs “have taught 1.4 million Venezuelans to read and write during the past uyear alone.” An ALBA-type agreement is currently being negotiated with Argentina, which already pays for the eight million barrels of Venezuelan oil it imports, not with hard cash or currency reserves that it does not have, but with cattle, which it does.

Other initiatives include the signing of twenty-six cooperation agreements between Venezuela and Brazil, the development of Telesur, a shared media network, the creation of a Banco Venezuelano Social, whose mission will be “to finance development in the interests of solidarity and cooperation,” and the founding of Petrosur, an “oil alliance” whose benefits to non-producing countries will include the avoidance of the 30% to 50% of the price to consumer countries that under the existing system goes to oil trading corporations, that is to say to “speculative capitalist intermediaries.”

The Bolivarian dream of Hugo Chavez Frias is a large and inclusive one. “Bolivarianismo,” he declared today, is also both “socialismo” and “cristianismo.” Chavez Frias’ Bolivarian-socialist Christianity echoes the liberation theologians’ “preferential option for the poor.” He quoted the saying of Jesus that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”–a saying that has particular resonance in Havana, where since the beginning of the “special period” of acute economic crisis brought on by with the collapse of the Soviet Union, “camel” has been the name given given to the huge tractor-trailer trucks converted into buses for urban transportation.

This Bolivarian doctrine involves clear political choices: “According to the Bible,” Chavez Frias reminded his audience, “you can be on good terms either with God or with the devil–but not with both.”  And its orientation is, very clearly, humanist: “El dios para mi–es el pueblo” (“God, for me, is the people”).

The Venezuelan president harbours no illusions as to the kinds of tactics the U.S. empire is likely to deploy in response to a potentially-continent-wide reorganization of social and economic life in the service of human rather than corporatist interests. But neither is he content with the old definition of politics as “the art of the possible.”  For this slogan, which Chavez Frias says has at times “been no more than an excuse for cowards, or a by-word of traitors and conservatives,” he substitutes what we might well term a Bolivarian Alternative: “Politics is the art of making possible tomorrow what seems impossible today.”

 

 

Leave a comment