I first met Hugo Chavez some fifteen years ago, in January 2000. He had just completed his first year in office, and was not widely known outside Latin America at that time. His achievements in that first year were to organise a constituent assembly to draft a new and radical constitution – subsequently ratified in a referendum – and to travel around the world to visit the oil-producing countries that were members of OPEC, an expedition that included being driven around the streets of Baghdad by Saddam Hussein.
The result of his efforts was an increase in the oil price from US$10 to 27 a barrel, and subsequently it rose to over a 100 dollars. Now it has dropped to below 50 – a measure of the problems that the post-Chavez government is having to face today.
My first meeting with Chavez was at La Casona, the colonial-style country house in the heart of Caracas where successive Venezuelan presidents had made their home. It had come under attack during the failed coup d’etat that Chavez had organised a decade earlier, in 1992. We talked throughout a long morning, while he outlined his plans for Venezuela; later I travelled by plane with him and half his cabinet to visit various development projects in distant provinces.
Over the years, in Paris and in London, and when I went often to Caracas, I had many opportunities to talk to him. He was a man of immense charm and huge enthusiasms, a delight to be with, and he never forgot a face.
I had been intrigued during earlier visits to Caracas in the 1990s to discover that Colonel Chavez, as he then was, was hugely popular in the shanty towns that surrounded the city, and he also enjoyed the support of several survivors of the pro-Cuban guerrilla movements that had operated in Venezuela in the 1960s. He was very obviously a man of the Left.
Yet of course many people in Britain and in Europe at that time, especially those on the Left, were nervous about embracing a military man, especially one who had organised an unsuccessful military coup d’état just a decade earlier. In those days the memory of the right-wing military dictators of Latin America, fascistic figures hiding behind dark glasses, was still very fresh. The most familiar were Generals Videla and Galtieri in Argentina, General Pinochet in Chile, Generals Costa e Silva and Emilio Medici in Brazil, Generals Banzer and Garcia Mesa in Bolivia. There were many others, notably in the countries of Central America.
The repressive policies of these monsters created refugees on a grand scale, some of whom came to Britain and to Europe. Many of these exiles soon began to influence the politics of their host countries, joining leftist movements and playing an important role in informing them about conditions in Latin America. Few of them had a good word for the Latin American military.
So when Colonel Chavez appeared on the scene, he was not immediately welcomed with open arms. It took time for him to be perceived as what he has become: the most significant figure in Latin America in the 21st century.
Fidel Castro, it should be said, had no difficulty at an early stage in recognising Chavez, the military man, as a potential friend and ally. Fidel had welcomed him to Havana as early as December 1994, just two years after his failed coup and some four years before he was elected President. Fidel had gone to meet him at the airport. In a lecture that month at the University of Havana, Chavez had explained his project to Cuban students:
“We as soldiers,” he said, are “engaged in the search [for a political and economic revolution], and today we are convinced of the need for the Venezuelan army to return to what it once was: an army to defend what Bolivar called social guarantees.” This phrase was in Bolivar’s final proclamation of 1830, just before he died, and is included in Chavez’s constitution for Venezuela of the year 1999. It calls for “the right to life, work, learning, education, social justice and equality, without discrimination or subordination of any kind.”
Ten years later, in 2004, when Chavez came on a return visit to Havana, Fidel recalled his own early enthusiasm: “When the news began to reach us of your history, your behaviour, and your ideas, while you were [still] in prison [we had already] perceived your qualities as a great revolutionary.”
“You promised to come back one day,” Fidel reminded Chavez, “with your hopes and dreams come true. [Now] you have returned, and you have returned a giant, now not only as the leader of your people’s victorious revolutionary process but also as an important international figure, loved, admired, and respected by millions of people all over the world…”
Things had worked out, Fidel told his audience, just as Chavez had said they would. Chavez had won a landslide victory in the elections of 1998, “with the support of the people, and the sympathy and solidarity of a majority in the military, especially the young officers. It was a good lesson for revolutionaries: there are no dogmas, nor only one way of doing things. The Cuban Revolution itself, he added, was also proof of that.”
There are no dogmas, says Fidel, but there certainly are fixed ideas and prejudices, especially so when we are dealing with the armed forces and politics.
In England, for example, the regiments of the British Army trace their historical origins back to the year 1660 and the “restoration” of King Charles II at the end of the Cromwellian republic. With that historical timeline, Britain’s army is certainly an anti-republican army, even perhaps a counter-revolutionary army. If there were to be a strong republican movement in this country today, which showed signs of winning, the British Army would certainly know which side it was on.
In Spanish Latin America, the armies mostly choose to trace their origins to the various liberation wars at the start of the 19th century. Soldiers had participated in those struggles to free their countries from Spanish rule. This is usually perceived as a progressive moment in the history of the continent.
Yet the Latin American military also belong to a much darker tradition, as the heirs to the enforcement arm of the conquistadores of the 16th century. Their vital task then, and in subsequent centuries, through into the post-independence period, was to protect the incoming white settlers from Europe, faced by the fierce resistance of the indigenous peoples. Soldiers in Latin America continued to fight in genocidal wars against the Indians throughout the 19th century.
Faced with these historical traditions, the peoples of Latin America today have confused and ambivalent ideas about their military. Coming to terms with the exceptionally brutal military dictatorships that characterised much of the continent in the 1970s, some countries have sought to bring criminal officers to justice. In Chile and Argentina and Guatemala, for example, many officers accused of torture have been put on trial, but in Brazil this has not happened. The Brazilian military have been protected by an amnesty law of 1979. Yet in December last year, a report by the National Truth Commission, revealed that illegal arrests, torture, executions and forced disappearances were performed systematically by agents of the state during Brazil’s period of military rule. This more recent revelation goes some way to recognising the crimes of the former military governments of Brazil.
In Uruguay, however, in spite of the violent years through which they have lived, most Uruguayans do not wish to bring the military to account. When thinking about their military, they prefer to recall José Artigas and the heroic soldiers that liberated the country in the 19th century rather than the killers and torturers who had occupied it in the 1970s. When military rule came to an end, the Congress passed a law that guaranteed an amnesty for all those guilty of torture and murder. Repeated efforts have been made in subsequent years, by the victims of the dictatorship, to declare the amnesty law invalid; but all of them failed.
So the question remains: what should be our attitude towards the armies of Latin America? How can they best be contained within
their societies? How can they both defend the country, and serve the people? Can they be given something useful to do? These were questions that Chavez sought to answer, through his vision of a civil-military partnership.
For in spite of the terrible legacy of the 1970s, we should not forget that Chavez belongs to a long-standing progressive tradition within the Latin American military that has existed in almost every country.
Tonight I want to look at the record of a handful of left-wing soldiers in the course of the twentieth century, and to highlight some of the episodes of what has sometimes been called “the military road to socialism.”
Chavez and Fidel were both enthusiastic supporters of this phenomenon. Chavez’s own list of the military predecessors that he favoured is quite small. The ones he really liked were General Juan Velasco of Peru and General Omar Torríjos of Panama. He also had some good words for General Juan José Torres of Bolivia. These were all soldiers who came to power in 1968 and 1970, when Chavez was still a teenager.
Fidel has a much longer list of military heroes, but then he has lived much longer. We should remember that Fidel’s first revolutionary action – the attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, on July 26 1953 – occurred exactly a year before Chavez was born.
Fidel has a list of about 9 revolutionary military figures in the past century, including Chavez; many of them he had known personally because they came to visit him in Cuba. These included Velasco and Torrijos, the same as Chavez’s list, but also Lazaro Cardenas of Mexico, Luis Carlos Prestes of Brazil, Juan Peron of Argentina, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, Francisco Caamaño of the Dominican Republic, and Liber Seregni of Uruguay, one of the founders of the Frente Amplio [Broad Front] that is in power today.
There were of course others, and my own list would probably include several figures from the 1930s, notably Colonels David Toro and German Busch, who set up a military socialist government in Bolivia in 1936, and Colonel Rafael Franco in neighbouring Paraguay; and of course the wonderfully-named Lieutenant Marmaduke Grove, who set up the “Socialist Republic of Chile” in 1932 that lasted for just twelve days. In the 1930s it was possible for soldiers to embrace the word “socialism” in a way that was not possible in the years of the Cold War.
I cannot talk about all these figures today, but my plan tonight is to look at some of them, in order to place Chavez in his proper context, at the very heart of a progressive, socialist tradition in Latin America that also embraces the military.
These episodes include some of the most significant and extraordinary moments in the history of Latin America in the 20th century: the Mexican Revolution, the Chaco War, the emancipation of the workers in Peronist Argentina, the prolonged struggle against the interventionist policies of the United States in the period of the Cold War – in Guatemala, in the Dominican Republic, in Bolivia, in Panama, and in Peru. Most of these progressive officers, just like Chavez, were among the most radical thinkers of their time, advocating land reform and the nationalisation of foreign oil companies, and perceiving the vital need to resist pressure from the United States.
First let us look at Peru, and at the record of General Velasco, who Chavez had actually met when visiting Lima as a cadet in 1974. Velasco had organised a military coup in October 1968, after fighting and defeating a guerrilla movement in the Andes, and he went on to sponsor one of the most revolutionary programmes ever seen in Peru. Like Chavez, he had a great sense of history and declared that his revolutionary government marked the “second independence” of the country. Velasco also invoked th e memory of Tupac Amaru, the great Indian rebel of the 18th century. He expropriated the sugar cane plantations in the coastal regions of the country, creating peasant cooperatives, and he subsequently expanded the land reform into the Andes and the Amazon.
Introducing far-reaching educational reforms, he established Quechua, alongside Spanish, as the official language of Peru. He also nationalised the International Petroleum Company, part of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and he expelled the Peace Corps.
To the astonishment of the Soviet Union, Velasco established close relations with Moscow. Soviet academics specialising in Latin America were obliged to recall the predictions of Engels, who wrote that the institution of universal conscription in Europe would change the composition of the armies by filling their ranks with peasants and workers; and the political stand of the armies would change in consequence.
Of course Velasco’s programme was greeted with hostility and derision by the bourgeois press, just as happened in Venezuela. But Velasco took a dramatic step in response, something Chavez did not dare to do, at least not on such a scale. Velasco expropriated the newspapers in 1974 and sent their oligarchic publishers into exile. The separate papers were then handed over to be run by different branches of the trade union movement. El Comercio was turned over to the peasants, La Prensa was given to the “industrial workers’ union”.
“I think Velasco was a great soldier, a great patriot and a revolutionary,” Chavez told Ignacio Ramonet, in a book of interviews that will be published in English later this year. “His government showed that the Armed Forces can help a country develop and bring about social change.
“In several aspects, his thinking reflected what I felt – and still feel. It helped me realize the need for a close relationship between the people and the military. As Mao said, a soldier should be like a fish in water when he is among the people.
“Velasco’s revolution, Chavez went on, was a socialist project. He introduced the most far-reaching agrarian reform of the 20th century in Latin America, and nationalised the strategic sectors of the economy: oil, gas, and mining… He encouraged worker participation in the management of nationalised industries. He aimed to raise the living standards of the poor through state-sponsored public works.”
Velasco ruled Peru for six years, from 1968 to 1974, until in that year he suffered from an aneurysm that led to the amputation of his right leg. He was deposed by a military coup in 1975 and died two years later; a million people attended his funeral.
Chavez thought that Velasco’s government had one major flaw: his cabinet was recruited solely from the military; civilians were ignored. Chavez thought this was a mistake. “The best road, he said, is a civilian-military alliance.” This is what he sought to construct in Venezuela.
Chavez’s other great military hero was General Omar Torrijos of Panama, a man famous for having secured the expulsion of the Pentagon from the Canal Zone. Torrijos had seized power in Panama in 1968, the same year as Velasco. Like Velasco he was an ardent advocate of land reform, but liberating the Canal was his most significant achievement. Signing a deal with the American President Jimmy Carter in 1977, he secured an American agreement to leave the Canal Zone by the end of the century. Torrijos never lived to see his dream come true. He was killed in an air crash in 1981, after 13 years in power.
Chavez visited Panama some years later, in September 1994, after he had been released from prison; and he was criticised by a local journalist. “You’re a colonel, the journalist complained. “And what have soldiers done in Latin America? Destroyed democracies and repressed the peoples”.
Chavez waited for him to finish and said: “You’re only talking about one side of the coin. It’s true what you said, but the other side is also true. Who was Bolivar? A general and commander-in-chief! Who was Sucre? A general and field marshal in Ayacucho! Who was Francisco Morazon? A general from Central America! Who was Eloy Alfaro? An Ecuadorean general! I too belong to that historical tradition. To the soldiers who came to liberate our peoples or die for them. I also reminded them of Peron, of Jacobo Arbenz, and of Velasco Alvarado…”]
Chavez’s third admired military leader of recent times was General Juan Jose Torres, who ruled in Bolivia from October 1970 to August 1971, for less than a year.
“I read a lot about that experience of military socialism,” Chavez told Ramonet. “Torres was a mixed-race soldier, from humble beginnings, who became a left-wing officer. He had been a very popular minister of labour, and then was the army chief of staff when Bolivian Rangers, with the help of the CIA, captured Che Guevara in October 1967.”
“Just think of the historical paradox,” said Chavez. Torres was among the senior officers who signed Guevara’s death warrant, yet he became a good revolutionary and a socialist. “He created with a group of intellectuals and progressive officers a programme he claimed to be the Revolutionary Mandate of the Armed Forces. They devised a left-wing theoretical frame-work with which to govern. The people were aware of the progressive nature of General Torres’ plans, and they came out to support the trades unions when they moved to prevent a reactionary coup that was in the making in 1970. That was the popular uprising that brought Torres to power.
“His left-wing military government relied on what he called the ‘four pillars of the revolution’: workers’ unions, peasant organizations, student movements and progressive officers. To me, that proved the need for a civilian-military alliance.
In addition, Chavez went on, “Torres had a very interesting thesis: the concept of the ‘internal frontier’. He said we naturally have to protect our external frontiers, but what he called the ‘internal frontier’ – meaning social equality, economic justice, development – needed much greater protection. We can protect external frontiers all we like, but if we neglect our ‘internal frontier’, poverty and injustice will increase, and society will explode. And that, said Chavez, was exactly what happened in Venezuela in February 1989, with the Caracazo.
“In the short time his mandate lasted, General Torres nationalised part of the mining sector, developed education, increased wages, and created a state bank.” He also summoned a “People’s Assembly”, drawn from many ideological positions, that served as a parliament. Torres was eventually overthrown, in August 1971, by a group of right-wing officers under General Banzer. He escaped into exile in Argentina, but was kidnapped in Buenos Aires a few years later [in June 1976] and assassinated.
Next let us move back thirty years or so, and look at the career of General Lazaro Cardenas, the president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, a period that marked the last great reforming phase of the Mexican Revolution.
Possibly his most famous achievement, in March 1938, was to nationalise the foreign oil companies, mostly owned by Britain and the United States. Mexico was the second largest oil producer in the world at the time. It was not the first Latin American country to nationalise its oil; that honour belonged to Bolivia.
In his nationalisation speech, Cardenas denounced the dismal record of the oil companies: “In how many of the villages bordering on the oil fields is there a hospital, or school or social centre, or a sanitary water supply, or an athletic field, or even an electric plant fed by the millions of cubic metres of natural gas allowed to go to waste?
“What centre of oil production, on the other hand, does not have its company police force for the protection of private, selfish, and often illegal interests?
“Who is not aware of the irritating discrimination governing construction of company camps? Comfort for the foreign personnel; misery, drabness, and unhealthy conditions for the Mexicans. Refrigeration and protection against tropical insects for the former; indifference and neglect… for the latter.”
As a footnote, we should note that Cardenas welcomed refugees from the Spanish Civil War and had allowed Trotsky to take refuge in January 1937. Although Trotsky was not supposed to take part in local politics, he did write a comment on the oil nationalisation, saying that “The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism; it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defence.”
Cardenas also nationalised the railways, but his most significant achievement was to secure the most extensive land reform in the country since the start of the Revolution in 1910. He distributed nearly twice as much land to peasants as had all of his predecessors combined, and by the end of his government in 1940 about half of the country’s cultivated land was held by formerly landless farmers.
Cardenas was a reluctant soldier, he disliked anything that smacked of militarism, and he always described himself as a teacher or farmer. He wore a suit rather than a military uniform.
Cardenas left office in 1940, but two decades later he was welcomed onto a platform in Havana beside Fidel, on July 26, 1959, to celebrate the anniversary of the Moncada attack in 1953.
He then returned to Mexico to address huge meetings in support of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution – to the great irritation and alarm of the United States. Mexico was the only Latin American country to refuse to break relations with Havana.
Another left-wing officer who took up the cause of the workers was Colonel Juan Peron, who ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955. His government was one of the most progressive in Latin America in the 20th century. Yet it was also among the most controversial. Hugely popular at home, it was endlessly denigrated abroad. The United States government was hostile from the word go, while the British were enraged by Peron’s nationalisation of the country’s railway system, then mostly in the hands of British investors. Hostility to Argentine governments that maintain the Peronist tradition, like the current government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, continues to this day, further exacerbated by British reluctance to discuss the future of the Malvinas islands.
Yet if you consider a list of the accomplishments of the first Peronist government, it is not difficult to understand the huge impact it made at the time, notably on the workers:
He launched a 5-year plan in 1946 that covered everything from women’s right-to-vote to the promotion of shipbuilding. Trade unions were recognised in every industry. Social security was made universal. Education was free. Huge low-income housing projects were constructed. Paid holidays were introduced, and workers’ holiday centres were constructed all over the country. All workers were guaranteed free medical care. Pregnant women were given 3 months off, and were paid, before and after giving birth.
To strengthen the economy, Peron created a state monopoly that handled all commodity exports. As a result, cattle and wheat, the country’s principal products, were sold at high prices abroad. Peron also nationalised the local IT&T telephone operation from the United States, and paid off the country’s national debt.
Argentina launched its own iron and steel industry. It began to make farm machinery, airplanes and cars. Ship-building was expanded by 500 percent, and huge investments were made in hydroelectric projects.
Nor did Peron forget the armed forces. He increased the size of the army, gave it modern equipment and increased its pay scale. He wore his uniform on state occasions, but otherwise he was dressed in a civilian suit. Until his last years in power, the army was content with his reforms.
Yet Argentina failed to sustain these progressive changes over the long haul. Most of the advances made during Peron’s decade in power disappeared after he had gone. He returned briefly as President in 1973 after nearly twenty years in exile, but the incompetence of the government after his death in 1974 led to the brutal dictatorship imposed on the country after 1976.
Another progressive officer who tried to transform his country’s unequal society was Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, President of Guatemala in the 1940s and 1950s, at more or less the same time as Peron. His was the most significant government in Latin America to suffer from “regime-change” imposed by the United States. After he had introduced an agrarian reform that threatened the unused lands of the United Fruit Company, the CIA funded a counter-revolutionary army of Guatemalan soldiers that invaded from Honduras. Arbenz was overthrown in 1954. The significance of his downfall was that it alerted all future left-wing governments in Latin America to be on the look-out for destabilisation from the CIA.
Che Guevara was present in Guatemala at the time of the overthrow of Arbenz, and was able to warn the Cubans what would face them were Fidel to win his guerrilla war. His warning was timely as the CIA team that had organised the attack on Arbenz reassembled after the Cuban Revolution and went back to work. They were instrumental in preparing the way for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Because of Guevara’s warning, Fidel knew what to expect, and the Cubans were ready to resist.
For a less familiar example of left-wing soldiers, I want to return to the 1930s, and to Bolivia and Paraguay. These two countries were at war for three years, from 1932 to 1935, in the worst international war in Latin America in the 20th century. The war was about the ownership of the Chaco, a hugely inhospitable and waterless territory that lies between the Amazon and the River Plate, in the heartland of the continent. Some have argued that it was a war about oil, reflecting the interests of Royal Dutch Shell on the Paraguayan side, and Standard Oil which was supporting Bolivia. Yet what little oil there was was already being extracted on the Bolivian side; in the Chaco proper no oil was found.
The two countries fought themselves to a standstill, with more than 100,000 dead by the end of the war. The worst killer was thirst, since there were virtually no supplies of local water and everything had to be transported through trackless scrub.
The conclusion of the war led to military rebellions in both countries in 1936. These were led by radical officers with socialist leanings, bitterly critical of the civilian regimes that had led them into war.
In Paraguay, the new leader was Colonel Rafael Franco, a popular officer during the war, who was supported by the veterans’ association. He seized power in February 1936, and said that he was introducing “military socialism.” Franco did indeed introduce many significant reforms: the right to an eight-hour day, the right to strike, and a land reform (May 1936) that gave land to 10,000 peasants. He also created a central bank and called for a constituent assembly. Franco’s revolutionary government lasted just six months; he was overthrown by right-wingers in the army in August 1936, and exiled for 20 years. [He died in Asuncion in September 1973.]
Something similar was taking place in neighbouring Bolivia at the same time. Bolivian officers had also begun to feel betrayed by their civilian leadership during the Chaco War. Junior officers were eager to efface the military disaster with political radicalism.
Two left-wing officers seized power in quick succession. The first was Colonel David Toro, who took over in May 1936, with a commitment to what he too called “military socialism.” In his opening appeal, Toro said that the firm intention of the army was “to implant state socialism with the aid of the parties of the Left.” In 1937, he ordered the expropriation of Standard Oil. This was the first occasion when a Latin American country seized a US-owned oil company.
Toro lasted for just 14 months, and was replaced in July 1937 by his colleague Colonel German Busch. Among the achievements of the Busch government was the country’s first labour code, as well as a scheme to divert the foreign earnings from tin mining through the central bank. A constituent assembly was elected that debated the clauses of a new constitution. Land reform and the nationalisation of the tin mines was discussed, but the most radical elements failed to appear in the final version of the constitution. Busch clearly felt that he had failed, and he committed suicide in August 1939. But a marker had been laid down for the future. Busch remains an honoured figure in Bolivia to this day.
Lastly, I cannot resist a footnote about Comodoro Marmaduke Grove Vallejo, a progressive lieutenant in the Chilean air force, who staged a rebellion in June 1932. With the support of the workers in the streets of Santiago, he inaugurated what he called “a Socialist Republic.” In the 1930s, Chile had been dramatically affected by the world recession, with a naval mutiny in 1931 and growing resistance from workers. Grove had long resented the apathy displayed by the civilian Congress towards the economic problems of the poor, and he was also critical of the widespread corruption of successive governments.
The new junta announced free meals for the poor, and free housing for those without shelter. Agricultural land would be opened up for unemployed farm workers, and credits were made available for small businessmen. Under the personal initiative of Grove, the Caja de Credito Popular, a government lending agency which used household goods and workmen’s tools for collateral, was dissolved, and people could reclaim their goods, which included plumbers’ tools, sewing machines, and typewriters. The government paid for their redemption.
The junta was deeply divided, but was popular with the poor. It was soon fiercely opposed by university students who complained about the threat of communism and organised an indefinite protest strike. Their message was heard within the army barracks, and after just 12 days the government collapsed. Grove and his socialist friends were soon on their way to exile on Easter Island. Grove, who was a cousin of Salvador Allende, lived on to help found the Chilean Socialist Party which survives to this day, [and he died in 1954].
Sadly, I have to admit that many of these left-wing military rulers did not last for long; some came to a sticky end. Reactionary officers lasted much longer. General Pinochet ruled Chile for 17 years, while Vicente Gomez, a dictator of Venezuela early in the 20th century, lasted for 27 years.
Colonel Chavez, of course, had a comparable ambition, to rule for a very long time; but his period in office was cut short by cancer, after 14 years. We tend to think that he died before his time, when he still had much to do. But in comparison was his left-wing predecessors that I have discussed today, he had quite a long innings.
Only Torrijos, in power for 13 years, lasted nearly as long. Peron in his first incarnation lasted eight years. Cardenas ruled for six years, Arbenz for three. German Busch of Bolivia survived for two years, while Colonel Toro lasted just 14 months, and Juan Jose Torres for less than a year. Rafael Franco of Paraguay lasted just six months, Marmaduke Grove for only twelve days.
In this context, Chavez did well. His civilian-military government survived for 14 years, a model of its kind. His own position in history is secure.
But what of his Bolivarian Revolution, constantly under attack, and now in the hands of Nicolas Maduro? Chavez constantly emphasised that he supported a civilian-military alliance, yet he left no one in any doubt that a civilian should be left in charge after his death. He made a special effort to ensure that Maduro, rather than a senior military officer, was elected as his successor. Maduro is not Chavez, that would be too much to ask. But he is a clever and sophisticated politician, with much experience.
Chavez made sure that the potential Pinochets in the Venezuelan armed forces were marginalised and kept well away from power. He would often say that he knew from experience how difficult it had been to stage a coup d’état. None of today’s opposition leaders have those skills.
Today there is much loose talk about the similarities between today’s Venezuela and Allende’s Chile in 1973. I do not make this comparison myself. There has been endlessly hostile press comment this month about events in Caracas and San Cristobal. Yet it is striking that almost all the articles in the British and European press have simply echoed the propaganda of the deeply-divided opposition parties. They have broadcast an unchanging message since the turn of the century. No effort is made in our newspapers to provide a balanced report.
But whenever you get depressed by this relentless outpouring of vitriol, do not forget that the civilian-military alliance that Chavez put in place is a robust and powerful construction. It was built to last, and it will not be lightly or easily overthrown.
All the progressive military figures in Latin America that I have talked about, like Chavez, look good in historical perspective. Their record, their reformist legacy, and their anti-imperialist stand, is remembered and honoured in their own countries. So it is today with Chavez, and so it will remain.
I want to finish by telling a story that some of you may have already heard me tell. Eight or nine years ago, I was travelling on Chavez’s plane with Maurice Lemoine, a French colleague from Le Monde Diplomatique. Chavez asked us what we thought was happening in Europe. Was there any chance of a move to the left?
We replied in the depressed and pessimistic tones typical of the early years of the 21st century. Neither in Britain nor France, nor anywhere in the eurozone, did we see much chance of a political breakthrough.
Then maybe, said Chavez with a twinkle, we could come to your assistance; and he reminded us of the time during the July Days in Paris in 1830 when revolutionary crowds had come out in the streets waving the cap of Simon Bolivar. Fighting for liberty, Latin-American style, was held up as the path for Europe to follow.
At the time, I was encouraged but not persuaded by Chavez’s optimism. Yet now I think that he was right. The radical governments of Latin America are now an example for Europe to follow.
It is good to remind ourselves that Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s radical left party, Syriza, had visited Caracas in 2007, and enquired about the future possibility of receiving cheap Venezuelan oil, much as Cuba does and other Caribbean and Central America countries as well. There was even a brief moment when Ken Livingstone and Chavez conjured up an oil deal between London and Caracas which looked very promising until it was abandoned by Boris Johnson.
More important than the prospect of cheap oil is the power of example. Chavez was engaged on a project that rejected the neoliberal economics that now afflicts Europe and much of the Western world. He was opposed to the recipes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and he fought hard against the policies of privatisation that harmed the social and economic fabric of Latin America – and with which the European Union has been trying to destroy the economy of Greece. Chavez renationalised the many industries, including oil and gas, which were privatised in the 1990s.
The words and inspiration of Chavez have had an effect beyond Venezuela. They have encouraged Argentina to default on its debt; to reorganise its economy thereafter and to renationalise its oil industry. Chavez encouraged Evo Morales to run Bolivia’s oil and gas industry for the benefit of the country rather than its foreign shareholders. Above all, he showed the countries of Latin America that there is an alternative to the single neoliberal message that has been endlessly broadcast for decades, by governments and the media in hock to an outdated ideology.
Now is the time for that alternative message to be heard further afield, to be listened to by voters in Europe. In Latin America, governments following an alternative strategy have been re-elected time and time again, suggesting that it is both effective and popular.
Richard Gott gave the speech at the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’s second annual Hugo Chavez Memorial lecture on February 26 at London’s Bolivar Hall.