Ten Things I Learned from Hugo Chávez

I like to gather signs of hope that things really can change for the better in a major way. With that in mind, I keep the website venezuelanalysis.com as my home page. On the afternoon of March 5, 2013, I had to catch my breath when I saw the headline, “President Hugo Chávez has Died.” Almost ten years ago, inspired by the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, I started learning as much as I could about Venezuela and Hugo Chávez. I participated in “reality tours” and political delegations to show solidarity, and to bring the lessons back home. Here are some things I learned.

1. Keep Smiling. Hugo Chávez’ charisma and popularity was based on his speaking to – and acting on – the needs of the people, who could see he was one of them. Also, Chávez had a huge smile he gave generously, lifting spirits in the struggle. Sure, we can’t smile all the time, and Hugo Chávez didn’t either, but I learned that when we do smile, we give a renewable source of energy that can light up the place.

2. 1% Lies are Enormous. The 1%, along with their military-industrial-media complex, uses the approach “by any lies necessary” to counter the power of good examples that can inspire hope and action in the rest of us. As a result of these enormous lies, Americans who know almost nothing about current affairs in Latin America believe the lie that Hugo Chávez was a dictator. In fact, Chávez was a democratically elected president, elected by a wide margin after running as an outsider in Venezuela’s fixed two-party system. His first acts as president were to wipe out illiteracy, establish healthcare clinics in the poorest barrios, and create a brand new constitution based on citizen input and participatory democracy. I wish our democratically elected presidents and governors would strive to empower us with better education, healthcare for all, and new rules to improve our democracy.

3. Attacks by the 1% can Strengthen the 99%. Whether you call it the backfire effect or political jujitsu, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from Venezuela is this: the force the opposition uses against us, the people, can be used as a catalyst that helps us increase our power. Here are three examples during Chávez’ presidency. The 2002 military coup was turned away not by Chávez himself – he was in captivity on an island – but by a mass protest of people in the capital city of Caracas. That military coup backfired and so the 1% tried an economic coup later that year, with an oil company lockout. Although nationalized almost 30 years earlier, the oil company had benefited only the ruling oligarchy while the vast majority of people lived in poverty. In a stunning backfire despite great odds, workers and the Chávez government learned to run the oil company, and in effect, the old 1% managers fired themselves and the people got control. The third attempt was in 2004 when the 1% used the recall powers in the new constitution. In this electoral battle, Chávez supporters organized barrios and pueblos across the nation to get out the “NO!” vote, and the recall was defeated. As a result, the 1% became weaker; and the 99% became stronger and more organized. Backfire!

4. Learn from History. Hugo Chávez taught history in the military, and in the process learned what had worked and what had not worked in people’s struggles in Latin America and beyond. He also studied nonviolent movements by reading Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. A new approach to land redistribution was something I learned about firsthand on the Day of Indigenous Resistance (formerly known as Columbus Day). On that day, our Global Exchange reality tour reached a remote area of Venezuela via three different aircraft: presidential jet (without the president on board), prop plane, and helicopter. Chávez arrived shortly after we did, and was greeted by hundreds of campesinos and our group of a dozen "estadounidenses" (U.S. Americans). It was apparent that he had learned from history: if you simply redistribute land in order to solve the vast inequality of wealth, people might not be able to hang onto the land. Instead, Venezuela’s new plans included these elements: distribute unused government land first before unused private land; give farmers access to credit, equipment, and agricultural training to lay the groundwork for success; prioritize farming cooperatives to help ensure stability over time; and grant temporary use of land leading to permanent ownership after the farmers succeeded in making the land productive. On the return trip to Caracas, Chávez was aboard the presidential jet. There he was, big as life, beaming at everyone.

5. Empower your People, and your Peers, Connect with Everyone. It seemed to me that Chávez’ motto was to empower ordinary people, and also empower peers – heads-of-state across the continent and even across the world. He learned from history that a single country, attempting to strengthen its own sovereignty at the expense of the interests of a super-power, is in much better position when in partnership with other countries also standing strong. Chávez worked diligently with other South and Central American presidents to fulfill liberator Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America. They built alliances for trade, finance, telecommunications, culture, and governance. Chávez’ approach seemed to be: connect with everyone, even those who oppose you, because there may be a time when their rarely given support could help your mission. When Colombia acted in ways that harmed the region, Chávez initiated meetings to address the matter, and to maintain a working relationship for future times when Colombia would stand with Latin America. Chávez also connected with other heads-of-state around the world, including those in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and he was willing to meet with American presidents from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama.

6. Missions, not Wars. Ten years ago if anyone had told me I would have great enthusiasm for a place where these elements combined forces: government, military, religion, and the oil industry, I would have said, “No way!” But there I was, participating in political delegations to Venezuela as often as my budget would allow. The Bolivarian “missions” were programs focused on literacy, healthcare, food, housing, agriculture, cooperatives, and much more. It struck me that the word “mission” made sense, since it was used in all of those arenas: government, military, industry, and religion. I thought, the U.S. doesn’t use “mission” like that, and so what word do we use? Then I realized, it’s “war” – the war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror. After the Venezuelan oligarchy running the national oil company essentially fired themselves, those earnings were available to benefit all of Venezuela, and the power of the missions increased. The strength of Chávez’ presidency, whether in the streets or in foreign policy, was based on the Bolivarian missions, not on military might.

7. Ideas not Ideology. The goal of the Bolivarian Revolution is to create “socialism of the 21st century.” Chávez and the people at the base (“el base” is the Spanish term for grassroots) aimed to implement that through participatory democracy, operating in what they referred to as “el proceso” rather than by a fixed, top-down plan laid out for the next 5 or 10 years. Significantly, the oil industry had already been nationalized in 1976 but the profits benefited very few Venezuelans. When Chávez became president, his administration did not immediately implement programs to redistribute land and nationalize the means of production across the board. Instead, Venezuela moved steadily toward nationalizing industries when it became possible; toward expropriating abandoned factories for workers to start up production; and toward creating cooperatives – while prioritizing industries essential for all Venezuelans and helping the new entities to succeed by giving them government contracts.

8. Paso a Paso, Step by Step, It All Contributes. In political delegations with the Task Force on the Americas, other participants and I often met with activists who had been organizing for 40 years or more. We asked them how on earth they managed to keep going all that time when the system seemed irretrievably locked into a two-party system with an entrenched oligarchy. The activists smiled and shrugged, “Hay que luchar, paso a paso” – “You have to struggle, step by step.” During all my travels to see firsthand what was happening in Latin America, I gained a new appreciation of history and how you’re never sure what’s going to happen, but when you are committed you can keep moving forward. It becomes clear that everything we’re doing now will be of use once there’s a crack in the seemingly impenetrable system. That crack happened in Venezuela; Chávez was elected; and the country began to turn away from concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1%, toward a sharing of wealth and power in the hands of the 99%.

9. Sometimes Loudmouths are Necessary. If someone had given me the decision about whether or not Chávez should refer to President Bush as the “devil” in a United Nations speech, I probably would have said “no,” but I would have been wrong. I’ll never forget that particular U.N. speech, or the news clip I saw online of a Fox TV reporter saying, "I don't know what was more disturbing, his blasphemous remarks…. or the amount of applause he got when he finished.” Considering the problems Latin America faced as the “backyard” of the United States, the biggest economic and military super-power the world has ever known, I could see the need to have someone courageous enough to roar, so that others could at least peep.

10. You Don’t have to be Perfect. There were any number of things Chavez said and actions he tried that could be criticized as going too far or not far enough, and yet he never stopped moving toward his mission of a better world. Of the many things Hugo Chávez tried in his life, the one that catapulted him into folk hero status in his country in 1992 was his 90-second speech in which he took responsibility for a military coup attempt that had failed, “por ahora” – for now. The next day the words “por ahora” were written on walls all over the place. Later Hugo Chávez would spend time with Fidel Castro, and together they would agree that the way to go in Latin America was no longer armed revolution, but rather electoral revolution, with an unwavering commitment to create a better world.

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