Reflections on the Work of President Chavez

A friend of mine said that when he heard the news of the death of President Chavez that it felt as if someone had hit him in the stomach. I could not have put it more concisely nor more honestly. While I knew that the likelihood of his recovering was very slight, I suppose that I engaged in a bit of magical thinking, hoping—more than anything else—that the man who survived a coup attempt and the constant hostility of US imperialism, could pull off a miracle. 

Over the coming weeks, months and years there will be important and in depth analyses of the work and life of Hugo Chavez. In this time of sadness and in the immediate aftermath of his passing it is difficult to do anything approaching a comprehensive analysis and I would be the last person to attempt such an endeavor. Feelings are too raw and the legacy will evolve over the coming years. That said, there have been some excellent pieces written by various authors that will all contribute to a better understanding of President Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. That said, I respectfully offer a few reflections. 

In January 2004, as the president of TransAfrica Forum, I had the honor of leading the first African American delegation to meet with the leaders of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. It was important for us to conduct this visit in order to better understand what was transpiring but also to get a better sense of race, the Afro-descendant movement, and the revolutionary process in Venezuela. 

Our delegation had the opportunity to meet with President Chavez on more than one occasion but the first real dialogue was more than memorable. President Chavez gave us an overview of Venezuela’s history and what led to his winning power. I thanked him for the meeting and proceeded to describe my feelings at the time of the 2002 coup. I mentioned to him and his colleagues that I was very sad upon hearing of the coup, and, of course, delighted when he was restored to power. What really struck me at the time of the coup, however, was looking at the faces of the crowds on television. I looked at the crowds that supported Chavez and those who opposed him and at that moment so much of what was unfolding in Venezuela clicked for me. For, it was clear that Chavez had phenomenal support among the poorer and the darker parts of the Venezuelan population while the opposition looked like it could have walked in from Madrid. 

One of the most important contributions of President Chavez and the Bolivarian process has been to help to put race on the table for discussions and action. Under President Chavez renewed attention has gone to the indigenous and the Afro-descendant populations. This attention, we should note, was not the result of President Chavez alone, but rather a combination of factors with the most important being the actual social movements of the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations of Venezuela. It is critically important to grasp that in Venezuela, including in many progressive and Left circles, there is adamant denial of race as a factor in Venezuela’s reality. The opposition to President Chavez, we should be clear, denies race altogether. In the Bolivarian movement the recognition of race and racism within Venezuelan society has been uneven. But with the combination of the social movements plus President Chavez’s support, race came to be openly discussed in Venezuela and actual steps were taken to address a very different form of white supremacy than the version with which we are familiar here in North America. 

Chavez, the former leader of a coup attempt in 1992, made a strategic calculation that building a mass movement and challenging for power electorally was the path that needed to be undertaken. Though Chavez ultimately proclaimed his goal of “21st century socialism,” it is far from clear that this was his initial goal. In many respects, the opening stage of the transformative effort in Venezuela seemed to be more characteristic of a left populism. In either case, the electoral victories of Chavez, and particularly after the 2002 coup followed by the oil industry lock-out (a more subtle coup attempt), opened up a space for the expansion of the Bolivarian process, and this process was more than a traditional electoral win. What Chavez introduced, along with several allies in other parts of Latin America, was conducting class struggle within the context of the State as well as outside of the State (which, we should add, included winning over important sections of the Venezuelan military). This process of class struggle has not been aimed along the lines of traditional reform efforts but actually toward advancing a transformative effort, the sort that would—and will—inevitably challenge the capitalist state in its fundamentals. 

The Bolivarian effort represents a departure from two prior roads pursued by much of the Latin American Left. The first was the standard electoral reform efforts whereby officials were elected to office and accepted the parameters of the capitalist state. The second was armed struggle that became quite prevalent in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and was attempted by Chavez himself. 

The Bolivarian process, which is far from over, has suggested multiple levels of struggle but in every case drawing upon mass action and mass involvement. This goes beyond huge demonstrations—as important as they may be—but more in the direction of encouraging alternative institutions as well as revitalized (or in some cases new) social movements. 

It is in foreign policy that President Chavez is most well-known here in the USA. His policies have been consistently directed at promoting national sovereignty and regional blocs in opposition to the hegemonism of the US-centered empire. For this Chavez earned the wrath of the US political elite and much of the mainstream US media. The Washington Post, for instance, could not seem to go a week without demonizing President Chavez and the Bolivarian process (including President Chavez’s allies in other parts of Latin America).  Chavez’s Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA), which he jokingly suggested was the result of a note that he sent to Fidel Castro during a meeting, represented an effort to break the dependency links that exist for much of Latin America and the Caribbean on the USA. 

Chavez’s approach to foreign policy was not without controversy even within the Left. His embrace of Libya’s Qaddafi and Iran’s Ahmadinejad unsettled, if not horrified, many on the Left in the Middle East and North Africa (and elsewhere), including many who had considered themselves supporters of Chavez. Chavez’s outreach to such leaders and their regimes, apparently based on the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, will be a problematic component of his legacy in that it seemed to ignore the progressive struggles that were being undertaken against leaders and regimes who, although at odds with imperialism, were domestically repressive and not in the progressive column. 

I cannot end this commentary, however, without making a note regarding a comment that President Chavez offered about his own illness, a comment that seems to have been largely forgotten. Upon the discovery of the cancer, he apologized for not having taken sufficient care of himself. I was struck by this comment for two reasons. The first was the admission that he had not been on top of his health and that he was prepared to take responsibility for that.

The second reason that I was struck was something implicit in his comment:  that it is actually a revolutionary duty to pay attention to one’s health. To put it another way, our duty is actually to live for the struggle (as opposed to living to struggle). Our lives are critical in advancing the struggle and that no one can take for granted or make an assumption about how long they will be on this planet. Neither can one, out of humility, so underrate one’s own role that we think that as individuals we do not matter. Every freedom fighter matters and preserving one’s health is a political task…in order to fight another day. 

I had hoped to return to Venezuela and once again meet President Chavez. That will, obviously, be impossible. Chavez will be deeply missed by so many fighters for justice. His audacity alone was enough for one to love him, not to mention his humor and brilliance. We cannot afford to lose fighters like Hugo Chavez which is why it remains so critical that genuine movements for social justice and transformation are producing new leaders of his quality each day.

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