The tragic death of Hugo Chavez is mourned around the world. Kate Hudson explains the social and economic context of his enormous political success and urges solidarity with the people of Venezuela.
As devastating structural adjustment policies were inflicted on Latin America by the IMF and the World Bank during the 1980s, the people of Venezuela fought back. In February 1989, when the Venezuelan government introduced social spending cuts, steep rises in fuel and public transport prices, and withdrew price controls on basic goods, there was a massive explosion of outrage and anger from Venezuela’s impoverished majority. Six hundred people were killed and a thousand injured in what became known as the Caracazo riots. In 1992, a coup was attempted by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, to overthrow the government and its brutal neo-liberal policies. Chavez and his movement were inspired by the 19th century Venezuelan military and political leader, Simon Bolivar, known throughout Latin America as the Liberator for his role in leading many Latin American states to freedom from European colonialism. Although the 1992 attempt failed, Chavez became famous for asserting on television that the coup had only failed ‘por ahora’, – for now.
After two years in prison, Chavez turned to the political path to power, with the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement deciding that it would contest the 1998 elections with the aim of achieving power. According to Chavez, the fight for power in Venezuela, ‘would be between two poles: the ‘patriotic pole’ led by the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, and the ‘pole of national destruction’, led by the old political parties.’ In 1997 the Movement, which included serving military officers, founded a new fully civilian political organization, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), to contest the 1998 elections. The name was designed to indicate that Venezuela – which was currently in its Fourth Republic, needed a new Republic and a break with the past. MVR, Chavez stated, would have ‘a national and popular character’, founded on the ideas of Bolivar: ‘Its mission is to secure the well-being of the national community, to satisfy the individual and collective aspirations of the Venezuelan people, and to guarantee a state of optimum prosperity for the fatherland.’ MVR formed an electoral alliance, known as the Polo Patriotico, with a number of long-standing but small left-wing organisations and parties, overcoming previous differences and fielding a single candidate in each state. The popularity of Chavez’s vision for a new Venezuela, for redistribution of wealth to the poor and for the genuine extension of rights to all and the full inclusion of the indigenous peoples in the political process, was enormously popular with the country’s impoverished masses. In the presidential election of December 1998, Chavez received 56.2% of the vote. As Richard Gott observed, ‘Within four years, he had come from prison to the gates of the presidential palace. The old political system lay in ruins all about him. An entirely new era was about to begin.’
As Chavez and the MVR began to undertake the process of major social and economic transformation in Venezuela some of it – such as the introduction of health provision directly into the barrios – seemed little short of miraculous. I saw this myself when I visited Caracas during the World Social Forum in 2006, visiting health centres, newly-established industrial cooperatives and social supermarkets for the poorest members of society. Not surprisingly, it was hard to overestimate the enthusiasm with which the new government was received by left and progressive parties and movements across the world. A major and explicit defeat had been inflicted on neo-liberalism. Some had reservations about what was described as Chavez’s ‘populist’ style and chaotic approach to government, but the overwhelming response – and justifiably so – was that the new Venezuela was inspiring and provided hope that an alternative could be achieved, practically and concretely. Chavez’s vision of unity for Latin America on a progressive basis, challenging US political and economic control was also hugely popular, not only on the continent itself but worldwide, particularly as left wing parties and movements in other Latin American countries strengthened and came to power. The economic strength of Venezuela, derived from its oil revenues, gave clout to Chavez’s foreign and domestic policies giving him greater independence vis a vis the United States. This progressive development on a state basis gave confidence to left parties and progressive forces around the world. Here in Britain, the initiative by London Mayor Ken Livingstone to work with Chavez resulted in economic cooperation, which benefited the poorest Londoners as well as providing much needed expertise to the city of Caracas. Many will remember the visit by Chavez to London, organised by the late Redmond O’Neill, who pioneered the relations between the two cities.
Following the tragic death of Hugo Chavez, all those who value the extraordinary contribution that he and his movement have made – not only to the people of Venezuela but to global politics – must unite to support the Bolivarian revolution. We must urgently work in solidarity with the people of Venezuela to prevent any attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of that country or bring an end to its revolutionary progress.