The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was unique in multiple areas of political, social and economic life. He made significant contributions to the advancement of humanity. The depth, scope and popularity of his accomplishments mark out Chavez as the “renaissance president of the 21st century”.
Many writers have noted one or other of his historic contributions, highlighting his anti-poverty legislation, his success in winning popular elections with resounding majorities, and his promotion of universal free public education and health coverage for all Venezuelans.
This article will highlight the unique world-historical contributions that Chavez made in the spheres of political economy, ethics and international law and in redefining relations between political leaders and citizens. It starts with his enduring contributions to the development of civic culture in Venezuela and beyond.
A TEACHER OF CIVIC VALUES: From his first days in office, Chavez was engaged in transforming the constitutional order of his country so that political leaders and institutions would be more responsive to the popular electorate.
Through his speeches, Chavez clearly and carefully informed the electorate of the measures and legislation being passed to improve their livelihoods. He invited comments and criticism, and his style was to engage in constant dialogue, especially with the poor, the unemployed and the workers.
Chavez was so successful in teaching civic responsibilities to the Venezuelan electorate that millions of citizens from the slums of Caracas rose up spontaneously to oust the US-backed business-military junta that had previously kidnapped their president and closed the legislature. Within 72 hours — record time — the civic-minded citizens restored the democratic order and the rule of law in Venezuela, thoroughly rejecting the mass media’s defence of the coup-plotters and their brief authoritarian regime.
Chavez, like all great educators, learned from this democratic intervention from the mass of citizens that democracy’s most effective defenders were to be found among the working people, and that its worst enemies were found in the business elites and military officials linked to Miami and Washington.
Chavez’s civic pedagogy emphasised the importance of the historical teachings and examples of founding fathers like Simon Bolivar in establishing a national and Latin American identity. His speeches raised the cultural level of millions of Venezuelans who had been raised in the alienating and servile culture of imperial Washington and the consumerist obsessions of Miami shopping malls.
Chavez succeeded in instilling a culture of solidarity and mutual support among the exploited, emphasising horizontal ties over vertical clientelistic dependency on the rich and powerful. His success in creating collective consciousness decisively shifted the balance of political power away from the wealthy rulers and corrupt political party and trade union leaders towards new socialist movements and class-oriented trade unions.
More than anything else, Chavez’s political education of the popular majority regarding their social rights to free health care and higher education, living wages and full employment, drew the hysterical ire of the wealthy Venezuelans and their undying hatred of a president who had created a sense of autonomy, dignity and class empowerment through public education ending centuries of elite privilege and omnipotence.
Above all, Chavez’s speeches, drawing as much from Bolivar as from Karl Marx, created a deep, generous sense of patriotism and nationalism and a profound rejection of a prostrate elite groveling before their Washington overlord, Wall Street bankers and oil company executives.
Chavez’s anti-imperialist speeches resonated because he spoke in the language of the people and expanded their national consciousness to identification with Latin America, especially with Cuba’s fight against imperialist interventions and wars.
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: At the beginning of the previous decade, after 9/11, Washington had declared a “War on Terror”. This was a public declaration of unilateral military intervention and wars against sovereign nations, movements and individuals deemed as adversaries, in violation of international law.
Almost all countries submitted to this flagrant violation of the Geneva Accords, except Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, who contributed the most profound and simple refutation of Washington’s agenda by saying that “you don’t fight terrorism with state terrorism.”
In his defence of the sovereignty of nations and international jurisprudence, Chavez underlined the importance of political and economic solutions to social problems and conflicts, repudiating the use of bombs, torture and mayhem. The Chavez Doctrine emphasised south-south trade, investment and diplomacy over the military resolution of disputes. He upheld the Geneva Accords against colonial and imperialist aggression, while rejecting the doctrine of the War on Terror and defining western state terrorism as a pernicious equivalent to that carried out by Al-Qaeda.
POLITICAL THEORY AND PRACTICE: One of the most profound and influential aspects of Chavez’s legacy was his original synthesis of three grand strands of political thought: popular Christianity, Bolivarian nationalist and regional integration and Marxist political, social and economic thought.
Chavez’s Christianity informed his deep belief in justice and the equality of people, as well as his generosity and forgiveness of adversaries even as they engaged in a violent coup, a crippling lockout, or openly collaborated and received financing from enemy intelligence agencies. Whereas anywhere else in the world, armed assaults against the state and coup d’états would result in long prison sentences or even executions, under Chavez most of his violent adversaries escaped prosecution and even rejoined their subversive organisations.
Chavez demonstrated a deep belief in redemption and forgiveness. Chavez’s Christianity informed his “option for the poor”, the depth and breadth of his commitment to eradicating poverty and his solidarity with the poor against the rich.
Chavez’s deep-seated aversion and effective opposition to US and European imperialism and brutal Israeli colonialism were profoundly rooted in his reading of the writings and history of Simon Bolivar, the founding father of the Venezuelan nation. Bolivarian ideas on national liberation long preceded any exposure to Marx, Lenin or more contemporary leftist writings on imperialism. His powerful and unwavering support for regional integration and internationalism was deeply influenced by Bolivar’s proposed “United States of Latin America” and his internationalist activity in support of anti-colonial movements.
Chavez’s incorporation of Marxist ideas into his world view was adapted to his longstanding popular Christian and Bolivarian internationalist philosophy. Chavez’s option for the poor was deepened by his recognition of the centrality of the class struggle and the reconstruction of the Bolivarian nation through the socialisation of the commanding heights of the economy. The socialist concept of self-managed factories and popular empowerment via community councils was given moral legitimacy by Chavez’s Christian faith in an egalitarian moral order.
While Chavez was respectful and carefully listened to the views of visiting leftist academics and frequently praised their writings, many failed to recognise or, worse, deliberately ignored, his own more original synthesis of history, religion and Marxism. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, some leftist academics have, in their self-indulgent posturing, presumed themselves to be Chavez’s teachers and advisors on all matters of Marxist theory, representing a style of leftist cultural colonialism that snidely criticised Chavez for not following ready-made prescriptions published in political journals in London, New York and Paris.
Fortunately, Chavez took what was useful from the overseas academics and NGO-funded political strategists, while discarding ideas that failed to take account of the cultural-historical, class and rentier specificities of Venezuela.
Chavez has accordingly bequeathed to the intellectuals and activists of the world a method of thinking that is global and specific, historical and theoretical, material and ethical, and that encompasses class analysis, democracy and a spiritual transcendence resonating with the great mass of humanity in a language every person can understand.
Chavez’s philosophy and practice, more than any discourse narrated by Social Forum-hopping experts, demonstrated that the art of formulating complex ideas in simple language can move millions of people to make history, and not only to study it.
ALTERNATIVES TO NEOLIBERALISM AND IMPERIALISM: Perhaps Chavez’s greatest contribution in the contemporary period was to demonstrate, through practical measures and political initiatives, that many of the most challenging contemporary political and economic problems can be successfully resolved.
Nothing is more difficult than changing the social structure, institutions and attitudes of a rentier petro-state with its deeply entrenched clientelistic politics, endemic party-state corruption and deeply-rooted mass psychology based on consumerism. Yet, Chavez largely succeeded where other petro-regimes had failed.
The Chavez administration in Venezuela first began with constitutional and institutional changes to create a new political framework. Then he implemented social-impact programmes that deepened political commitments among an active majority, which, in turn, bravely defended the regime from a violent US-backed business-military coup d’état.
Mass mobilisation and popular support in turn radicalised the Chavez government and made way for a deeper socialisation of the economy and the implementation of radical agrarian reform. The petrol industry was socialised, and royalty and tax payments were raised to provide funds for massively expanded social expenditures benefiting the majority of Venezuelans.
Almost every day, Chavez prepared clearly understandable educational speeches on social, ethical and political topics related to his regime’s redistributive policies by emphasising social solidarity over individualistic acquisitive consumerism. Mass organisations and community and trade union movements flourished, and a new social consciousness emerged that was ready and willing to advance social change and confront the wealthy and powerful.
Chavez’s defeat of the US-backed coup and bosses’ lockout and his affirmation of the Bolivarian tradition and sovereign identity of Venezuela created a powerful nationalist consciousness that eroded the rentier mentality and strengthened the pursuit of a diversified and balanced economy. This new political will and national productive consciousness was a great leap forward, even as the main features of a rentier-oil dependent economy persisted.
This extremely difficult transition has begun, and it is an ongoing process. Overseas theorists who criticise Venezuela for its “corruption” and “bureaucracy” have profoundly ignored the enormous difficulties of transitioning from a rentier state to a socialised economy and the enormous progress achieved by Chavez.
ECONOMIC CRISIS WITHOUT AUSTERITY: Throughout today’s crisis-wracked capitalist world, ruling labour, social democratic, liberal and conservative regimes have imposed regressive austerity programmes involving brutal reductions of social welfare, health and education expenditures and mass layoffs of workers and employees, while handing our generous state subsidies and bailouts to failing banks and capitalist enterprises.
Chanting their Thatcherite slogan of “there is no alternative,” capitalist economists have justified imposing the burden of “capitalist recovery” onto the working classes, while allowing capital to recover its profits in order to invest.
Chavez’s policy was the direct opposite. In the midst of crisis, he retained all the social programmes, rejected mass firings and increased social spending. The Venezuelan economy rode out the worldwide crisis and recovered with a healthy 5.8 per cent growth rate in 2012. In other words, Chavez demonstrated that mass impoverishment was a product of the specific capitalist formula for recovery. He showed another, positive alternative approach to dealing with economic crisis that taxed the rich, promoted public investment, and maintained social expenditure.
Many commentators from the left, right and centre have argued that the advent of a globalised economy has ruled out radical social transformation. Yet Venezuela, which is profoundly globalised and integrated into the world market via trade and investment, has made major advances in social reform. What really matters in relation to a globalised economy is the nature of the political and economic regime and its policies, these dictating how the gains and costs of international trade and investment are distributed.
In a word, what is decisive is the class character of the regime and how it manages its place in the world economy. Chavez certainly did not de-link from the world economy; rather, he re-linked Venezuela in a new way. He shifted Venezuelan trade and investment towards Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, especially to countries that do not intervene or impose reactionary conditions on economic transactions.
ANTI-IMPERIALISM AT A TIME OF IMPERIALIST OFFENSIVES: At a time of virulent US-EU imperialist offensives involving pre-emptive military invasions, mercenary interventions, torture, assassinations and drone warfare in Iraq, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan and brutal economic sanctions and sabotage against Iran, Israeli colonial expulsions of thousands of Palestinians financed by the US, US-backed military coups in Honduras and Paraguay, and aborted revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Chavez, alone, stood as a principled defender of anti-imperialist politics.
Chavez’s deep commitment to anti-imperialism stands in marked contrast to the capitulation of western intellectuals who mouthed crude justifications in support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and Libya, the French invasion of Mali, and the Saudi-French funding and arming of Islamist mercenaries in Syria.
These same London, New York and Paris-based intellectuals who patronised Chavez as a merely “populist” or “nationalist” figure and claimed he should have listened to their lectures and read their books crassly capitulated under the pressure of the capitalist state and mass media into supporting “humanitarian interventions” (in other words, NATO bombings) and justified their opportunism in the language of obscure leftists sects.
Yet, Chavez confronted NATO pressures and threats, as well as the destabilising subversion of his domestic opponents, and he courageously articulated the most profound and significant principles of 20th and 21st-century Marxism: the inviolate right to self-determination of oppressed nations and unconditional opposition to imperialist wars.
While Chavez spoke and acted in defence of anti-imperialist principles, many in the European and US left acquiesced in imperialist wars. There were virtually no mass protests, the anti-war movements were either co-opted or moribund, the British Socialist Workers Party defended the massive NATO bombing of Libya, and the French Socialists invaded Mali with the support of the Anti-Capitalist Party. Meanwhile, Chavez had articulated a far more profound and principled understanding of Marxist practice, certainly than his self-appointed overseas Marxist tutors.
No other political leader, or, for that matter, leftist academic, had developed, deepened and extended the central tenets of anti-imperialist politics in the era of global imperialist warfare with greater acuity than Hugo Chavez.
Chavez’s programmatic and comprehensive reconfiguration of Venezuela from a disastrous and failed neoliberal regime to a dynamic welfare state also stands as a landmark in 20th and 21st-century political economy.
His successful reversal of neoliberal institutions and policies, as well as his re-nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, demolished the reigning neoliberal dogma derived from the Thatcher-Reagan era and enshrined in the slogan that “there is no alternative” to brutal neoliberal policies, or TINA.
Chavez rejected privatisation, and he re-nationalised key oil-related industries, socialised hundreds of capitalist firms, and carried out a vast agrarian reform programme, including land distribution to 300,000 families. He encouraged trade union organisations and worker control of factories, even bucking public managers and his own cabinet ministers.
In Latin America, Chavez led the way in defining with greater depth and with more comprehensive social changes the post neoliberal era. Chavez envisioned the transition from neoliberalism to a new socialised welfare state as an international process and provided financing and political support for new regional organisations like ALBA, PetroCaribe and UNASUR.
He rejected the idea of building a welfare state in one country and formulated a theory of post-neoliberal transitions based on international solidarity. Chavez’s original ideas and policies regarding the post-neoliberal transition escaped the armchair Marxists and the globetrotting Social Forum NGO pundits, whose inconsequential global alternatives had succeeded primarily in securing imperialist foundation funding.
Chavez demonstrated through theory and practice that neoliberalism was indeed reversible, in this way achieving a major political breakthrough for the 21st century.
RADICAL DEFINITION OF POST-NEOLIBERALISM: The US-EU promoted neoliberal regimes have collapsed under the weight of the deepest economic crisis the world has seen since the Great Depression.
Massive unemployment has led to popular uprisings, new elections and the advent of centre-left regimes in most of Latin America, which have rejected or at least claimed to repudiate neoliberalism. Most of these regimes have promulgated legislation and executive directives to fund poverty programmes, implement financial controls and make productive investments, while raising minimum wages and stimulating employment.
However few lucrative enterprises have actually been re-nationalised. Addressing inequalities and the concentration of wealth have not been part of their agenda, and instead they have formulated a strategy of working with Wall Street investors, local agro-mineral exporters and co-opted trade unions.
Chavez posed a profoundly different alternative to this form of post-neoliberalism. He nationalised resource industries, excluded Wall Street speculators and limited the role of the agro-mineral elites. He posed a socialised welfare state as an alternative to the reigning social-liberal orthodoxy of the centre-left regimes, even as he worked with these regimes in promoting Latin American integration and opposing US-backed coups.
Chavez was both a leader defining a more socialised alternative to social liberation and the conscience pressuring his allies to advance further. He opened a new and extraordinarily original and complex path to socialism based on free elections, re-educating the military to uphold democratic and constitutional principles, and the development of mass and community media. He ended the capitalist mass media monopolies and strengthened civil society as a counter-weight to US-sponsored para-military and fifth-column elites intent on destabilising the democratic state.
No other democratic-socialist president in the region had successfully resisted imperial destabilisation campaigns — neither Jagan in Guyana, Manley in Jamaica, nor Allende in Chile. From the very outset, Chavez saw the importance of creating a solid legal-political framework to facilitate executive leadership, promote popular civil society organisations and end US penetration of the state apparatus (military and police).
Chavez implemented radical social-impact programmes that ensured the loyalty and active allegiance of popular majorities and weakened the economic levers of political power long held by the capitalist class. As a result, Venezuela’s political leaders, soldiers and officers loyal to its constitution, and the popular masses crushed a bloody right-wing coup, a crippling bosses’ lockout and a US-financed referendum and proceeded to implement further radical socio-economic reforms in a prolonged process of cumulative socialisation.
Chavez’s originality, in part the result of trial and error, was his experimental method. His profound understanding and response to popular attitudes and behaviour was deeply rooted in Venezuela’s history of racial and class injustice and popular rebelliousness.
More than any previous socialist leader, Chavez travelled, spoke and listened to Venezuela’s popular classes on questions of everyday life. His method was to translate micro-based knowledge into macro-programmed changes. In practice, he was the anti-thesis of the overseas and local intellectual know-it-alls who literally “spoke down to” the people and who saw themselves as the masters of the world, at least in the micro-world of leftist academia, ingrown socialist conferences and self-centred monologues.
As a result, the death of Hugo Chavez was profoundly mourned by millions in Venezuela and hundreds of millions around the world because his transition to socialism was their path: he listened to their demands and he acted upon them effectively.
SOCIAL DEMOCRACY AND NATIONAL SECURITY: Chavez was a socialist president for over 13 years in the face of large-scale, long-term violent opposition and financial sabotage from Washington, the local economic elite and mass media moguls.
Chavez created the political consciousness that motivated millions of workers and secured the constitutional loyalty of the military to defeat a bloody US-backed business-military coup in 2002. Chavez tempered social changes in accordance with a realistic assessment of what the political and legal order could support. First and foremost, Chavez secured the loyalty of the military by ending US advisory missions and overseas imperial indoctrination, while substituting intensive courses on Venezuelan history, civic responsibility and the critical link between the popular classes and the military in a common national mission.
Chavez’s national security policies were based on democratic principles, as well as on a clear recognition of the serious threats to Venezuelan sovereignty. He successfully safeguarded both national security and the democratic rights and political freedoms of the country’s citizens, a feat which has earned Venezuela the admiration and envy of constitutional lawyers and citizens of the US and the EU.
In stark contrast to Chavez, US President Barack Obama has assumed the power to assassinate US citizens based on secret information and without trial both inside and outside the US. His administration has murdered “targeted” US citizens and their children, jailed others without trial, and it maintains secret files on over 40 million Americans.
Chavez never assumed those powers and never assassinated or tortured a single Venezuelan. In Venezuela, the dozen or so prisoners convicted of violent acts of subversion after open trials in Venezuelan courts stand in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands of jailed and secretly framed Muslims and Latin American immigrants in the US. Chavez rejected state terror; while Obama has special assassination teams on the ground in over 70 countries.
Obama supports arbitrary police invasions of “suspect” homes and workplaces based on secret evidence, while Chavez even tolerated the activities of known foreign [CIA]-funded opposition parties. In a word, Obama uses claims of “national security” to destroy democratic freedoms, while Chavez upheld democratic freedoms and imposed constitutional limits on the national security apparatus.
Chavez sought the peaceful diplomatic resolution of conflicts with hostile neighbours, such as Colombia which hosts seven US military bases that are potential springboards for US intervention. On the other hand, Obama has engaged in open war with at least seven countries and has been pursuing covert hostile action against dozens of others.
LEGACY OF HUGO CHAVEZ: Chavez’s legacy is multi-faceted. His contributions are original, theoretical and practical and universally relevant. He demonstrated in theory and in practice how a small country can defend itself against imperialism, maintain democratic principles and implement advanced social programmes.
His pursuit of regional integration and promotion of ethical standards in the governance of a nation provide examples that are profoundly relevant in a capitalist world awash with corrupt politicians slashing living standards while enriching the plutocrats.
Chavez’s rejection of the Bush-Obama doctrine of using state terror to fight terror, his affirmation that the roots of violence are social injustice, economic pillage and political oppression, and his belief that resolving these underlying issues is the road to peace, stands as an ethical-political guide for humanity’s survival.
Faced with a violent world of imperialist counter-revolution and resolved to stand with the oppressed of the world, Hugo Chavez enters world history as a complete political leader, with the stature of the most humane and multi-faceted leader of our epoch: a Renaissance figure for the 21st century.
The writer is a former professor of sociology at Binghamton University, New York.