Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo: Hugo Chávez (1954-2013)

Boy plays next to graffiti depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a rap singer in Petare in the suburbs of Caracas

The news from Cara­cas has not been promis­ing for some time. The leader of the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion had not been seen since early Decem­ber, when he trav­elled to Cuba to undergo emer­gency surgery for a still undis­closed form of can­cer. On Tues­day March 5, Vice Pres­i­dent Nicolás Maduro announced that Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez died in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Cara­cas. He was 58 years old.

Chávez was and will remain a polar­iz­ing char­ac­ter, as all rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies should be. 

Chávez had the temer­ity to defy the United States as it attempted to recon­fig­ure the post Cold War world. He decried the “col­lat­eral dam­age” of bomb­ing cam­paigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, was an out­spo­ken and sub­stan­tive sup­porter of Palestine and a critic of Israeli war crimes, and worked towards delink­ing Latin Amer­ica from the pre­rog­a­tives of US power. In 2002 he sur­vived an attempted coup d’état orches­trated by local elites and sanc­tioned by the Empire to the North. In 2003 he with­stood a bosses’ strike in the petro­leum sec­tor that lasted two months and crip­pled the econ­omy. In both cases, Chávez was saved not by virtue of his polit­i­cal acu­men or his larger-than-life per­son­al­ity – attrib­utes he held and prac­ticed in abun­dance – but rather by mobi­liza­tions of Venezuela’s poor major­ity that sur­prised his gov­ern­ment as much as any­one else.

It is this exam­ple that could be for­given least by Empire, but it was also this real­ity that repeat­edly thwarted attempts by domes­tic and inter­na­tional cap­i­tal to oust Chávez. The real threat posed by the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was not its redis­tri­b­u­tion of the country’s wealth, its drive to democ­ra­tize con­sump­tion, its com­mit­ment to erad­i­cat­ing poverty at home and abroad, or its diplo­matic project to forge a mul­ti­po­lar world sys­tem – though none of these should be dis­counted.1 The real threat posed by the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion to world order was felt most in those moments when it “ruled by obey­ing.”2

In this way, Chávez’s divi­sive­ness was much more sig­nif­i­cant than sug­gested by the sound bites already being repeated ad nau­seum, long before his death, by a North Atlantic media that tended to oper­ate more as the State Department’s mega­phone than the “Fourth Estate.”3 The “Chávez Phe­nom­e­non” force­fully restaged the ques­tion of the state and of sov­er­eignty for anti-cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle.

Through­out the 1990s a con­sen­sus emerged between the Left and Right – if for incom­men­su­rable rea­sons – that the state-form was always and only a road best left untrav­eled. While the elec­tion of Chávez in 1998 did not set­tle the mat­ter, it placed the rela­tion between con­stituent and con­sti­tuted power at the cen­ter of its dis­course and debates. One could find heav­ily sub­si­dized trans­la­tions of John Holloway’s anti-state Marx­ist man­i­festo Change the World With­out Tak­ing Power (2002) in the same gov­ern­ment-funded sub­way kiosks that sold the con­sti­tu­tion of the Boli­var­ian Repub­lic of Venezuela and books extolling the polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of el Coman­dante. Tele­vised debates took place on the the­ses of Hardt and Negri’s Empire. The roadmap for the rev­o­lu­tion adver­tised through­out 2007 and 2008 – the “five motors of Boli­var­ian Social­ism” – openly sup­ported the rad­i­cal recon­fig­u­ra­tion and decen­ter­ing of the national “geom­e­try of power” and gov­er­nance through the “explo­sion of com­mu­nal power.” The sense of open­ness, exper­i­men­ta­tion, and pos­si­bil­ity is pal­pa­ble in Venezuela, even if rhetoric and action have not always matched each other’s pace.

To sug­gest the Boli­var­ian process has been com­pleted, or that it has been uni­lat­er­ally suc­cess­ful in these endeav­ors, is as facile as com­par­isons of Chávez to Stalin. As Roland Denis – a com­radely critic of the Chávez effort who served as the min­is­ter of Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment in the early stages of the Rev­o­lu­tion, and a long-stand­ing par­tic­i­pant in Venezue­lan social move­ments since the 1970s – puts it:

“the process” is… a col­lec­tive and open con­struc­tion that is not marked by final objec­tives, nor is it dri­ven by the inex­orable course of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment… every­thing in “the process” is in ten­sion. Noth­ing or no one can over­come its tran­si­tory logic; we are mak­ing a new real­ity that we don’t yet know very well.4

The Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion is ongo­ing and con­tin­gent. In my own work I have often described the Chávez gov­ern­ment as the “‘insti­tu­tional” phase of the polit­i­cal sequence that began with the upris­ings against neolib­eral struc­tural adjust­ment of the 1980s and 1990s.5 The next, “post-Chávez,” phase will con­tinue to be defined by this irre­solv­able ten­sion over its direc­tion, method, and sub­stance – the clash between rad­i­cal and “right-wing” chav­ismo has already been rag­ing for a decade, and has been more sig­nif­i­cant than con­flicts with the oppo­si­tion in deter­min­ing the tra­jec­tory of the Rev­o­lu­tion to date.6

Or at least, this has been the chief con­tra­dic­tion until the present. Chávez per­formed a dual role dur­ing his decade and a half in the pres­i­dency. In the first, he embod­ied the gap and ten­sion that defined strug­gle in Venezuela, stitch­ing together social demo­c­ra­tic and rev­o­lu­tion­ary fac­tions of the “Left.” In the sec­ond – per­haps coun­ter­in­tu­itively – he pre­vented social antag­o­nism in Venezuela from boil­ing over into open and armed civil war. He was fond of remind­ing sup­port­ers and oppo­si­tion alike that the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was “peace­ful, but armed.” While the new com­po­si­tion of the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment leaves much room for debate as to whether the inter­nal “Right” or “Left” of chav­ismo will carry el Coman­dante’s torch (and this may indeed be by design), the ongo­ing civil war in Venezuela shows lit­tle sign of sub­sid­ing. If any­thing, social and polit­i­cal con­flict in Venezuela is likely to increase in scope and inten­sity, and this is a deeply ambiva­lent devel­op­ment from the per­spec­tive of social rev­o­lu­tion.

The kind of change we want can’t be won through elec­tions alone.

I lived and worked in Venezuela in 2007 and 2008. One of my jobs was with the government’s mis­ión Ribas (a high-school equiv­a­lency pro­gram orga­nized by res­i­dents of infor­mal set­tle­ments and funded by the national gov­ern­ment) in the West­ern Cara­cas Parish of La Vega. The peo­ple I worked with there were among the most mar­gin­al­ized by the country’s chaotic urban­iza­tion with­out indus­tri­al­iza­tion that had defined the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. They were as zeal­ous in their sup­port of and con­fi­dence in Pres­i­dent Chávez as they were crit­i­cal of the “bureau­crats and scor­pi­ons” that sur­rounded him, and they were mil­i­tantly opposed to the “ran­cid bour­geoisie.” “The kind of change we want can’t be won through elec­tions alone” was their mantra. “We have to build our power, as a com­mu­nity. No one will give it to us.”

A few years later, after I returned to the United States, the sen­ti­ment I encoun­tered every day I worked with rad­i­cal boli­var­i­ans was cap­tured per­fectly in an inter­view with a mem­ber of the HipHop Rev­olu­ción move­ment: “we respect Chávez, because he under­stands our strug­gle, but we are always look­ing to be self-crit­i­cal to keep our rev­o­lu­tion mov­ing in the right direction…I’m a rev­o­lu­tion­ary from my heart. Chávez fucks around and flips on us, we’re gonna flip on him. And I think that’s what he expects from us.”7

George Cic­cariello-Maher (2007) has described this dynamic by refor­mu­lat­ing Lenin’s con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion­ary dual power. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est for Cic­cariello-Maher is the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of pop­u­lar power in bod­ies like the con­se­jos comu­nales (com­mu­nal coun­cils) and the now defunct círu­clos boli­var­i­anos (Boli­var­ian Cir­cles). He con­tends that in

the con­struc­tion of an autonomous, alter­na­tive power capa­ble of chal­leng­ing the exist­ing state struc­ture… we can see that the estab­lish­ment of com­mu­nal coun­cils in Venezuela is clearly a pos­i­tive step toward the devel­op­ment of fuller and deeper democ­racy, which is encour­ag­ing in and of itself. But the coun­cils’ sig­nif­i­cance goes beyond that. The con­sol­i­da­tion of com­mu­nal power says much about the role of the state in the Venezue­lan Rev­o­lu­tion. Specif­i­cally, what is unique about the Venezue­lan sit­u­a­tion is the fact that sec­tors of the state are work­ing actively to dis­man­tle and dis­solve the old state appa­ra­tus by devolv­ing power to local organs capa­ble of con­sti­tut­ing a dual power. Tran­scend­ing the sim­plis­tic debate between tak­ing or oppos­ing state power, a focus on dual power allows us to con­cen­trate on what really mat­ters in Venezuela and else­where: the rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tion of exist­ing repres­sive [state] struc­tures.8

In Venezuela the state-form itself is being trans­mo­gri­fied into a self-rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing appa­ra­tus. Rather than a head-on col­li­sion with the insti­tu­tions of the ancien régime – notably the bureau­cracy, the pri­vate news media and the pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem – the Chávez gov­ern­ment more often than not has opted to fund the cre­ation of par­al­lel insti­tu­tions. The misiones boli­var­i­anas, the decen­tral­iza­tion of leg­isla­tive and bud­getary power to the com­mu­nal coun­cils, the degree to which every­thing gets called to a vote – all of these quo­tid­ian real­i­ties sug­gest a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy of exo­dus and pro­duc­tion. Build a new world so that the old can wither and die.

The “post-Chávez era” will in other words be deter­mined by the con­tin­ued expres­sion and devel­op­ment of pop­u­lar power, not by rep­re­sen­ta­tives or insti­tu­tions. It would, how­ever, be mis­guided to under­es­ti­mate the impor­tance these (often tem­po­rary) insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tions of power have been, espe­cially in terms of pro­vid­ing plat­forms for future action and mobi­liza­tion against the still-present old guard.

It has often been sug­gested that the Chávez gov­ern­ment ought to be sup­ported because it facil­i­tated the actions of social move­ments to orga­nize and advance. This posi­tion, while cor­rect in the final instance, is nonethe­less based on the faulty assump­tion that Chávez was the cause rather than the effect of social upheaval and trans­for­ma­tion in Venezuela. Chávez and the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion have always been the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the social rev­o­lu­tion to which it is allied, not its source.

The Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion moved into the spaces opened by insur­rec­tions it did not and could not con­trol: the cara­cazo anti-neolib­eral upris­ings of Feb­ru­ary 1989 that left thou­sands dead dur­ing a week­end of street bat­tles over struc­tural adjust­ment, and shat­tered the exclu­sion­ary “democ­racy” of the puntofijo pact.9 A decade later Chávez won his first elec­tion – after the then Lieu­tenant Colonel took respon­si­bil­ity for a failed coup in 1992 – on the explicit promise of a defin­i­tive break with the ancien régime. In April 2002 a spon­ta­neous upris­ing of the cap­i­tal city’s poorest over­turned a two-day coup led by the mil­i­tary high com­mand, pri­vate telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, the national cham­ber of com­merce, and the direc­torate of the state oil com­pany. In 2003 retired work­ers and vol­un­teers ended a lock­out of the oil indus­try that crip­pled the national econ­omy.

With the events of 2002 and 2003, the inter­na­tion­ally-linked oppo­si­tion over-extended itself and was defeated by the mul­ti­tude. It couldn’t have been any other way. The Chávez gov­ern­ment has been metic­u­lous in its com­mit­ment to legal, insti­tu­tional, reforms; it has always sought to leg­is­late change. The cycle of “coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion and reform” could only advance after defeat for the right, and these defeats were played out in the streets.10

“Com­pañeros, the great­est lib­er­tar­ian teacher of the Venezue­lan peo­ple has died, and two days ear­lier another equal teacher… Chávez and Sabino show the way.” - Roland Denis

Chávez’s death came as many rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in Venezuela were try­ing to make sense of an ear­lier loss. On March 3, just two days before the announce­ment of Chávez’s death, Sabino Romero was assas­si­nated while trav­el­ling to a polling place for a com­mu­nity elec­tion. Sabino was a leader of the Yukpa peo­ple in the West­ern Venezue­lan state of Zulia and a tire­less agi­ta­tor for indige­nous auton­omy and rights, and the preser­va­tion of lands in the face of the Boli­var­ian government’s often devel­op­men­tal­ist drive. In 2009 Sabino spent 18 months in prison on almost cer­tainly fraud­u­lent charges of arson and cat­tle rustling after he lead a cam­paign of non­vi­o­lent direct action and occu­pa­tion of lands granted to the Yukpa, but being held ille­gally by large-scale land own­ers.

Sabino iden­ti­fied as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and though he often clashed with local (and usu­ally right-wing) chav­ista offi­cials, was widely con­sid­ered by the rad­i­cal base of the Boli­var­ian move­ment an exam­ple to be fol­lowed in “deep­en­ing” the Rev­o­lu­tion. His death at the hands of paid gun­men will almost cer­tainly be eclipsed by the pub­lic mourn­ing and polit­i­cal recon­fig­u­ra­tion fol­low­ing the death of the Pres­i­dent. How­ever, his frac­tious rela­tion­ship with the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion char­ac­ter­izes the dynam­ics that have defined the last 15 years in Venezuela, and sug­gests pos­si­ble direc­tions for the future of the move­ment.

I have long won­dered if Chávez, per­haps para­dox­i­cally, might have been the only thing pre­vent­ing civil war in Venezuela. Of course, Venezuela is noto­ri­ously no stranger to every­day vio­lence and crime. How­ever, the assas­si­na­tion of Sabino sug­gests a dis­turbing and increased degree of ungovern­abil­ity and bold­ness on the part of elites, and an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the war that pre­dates the Chávez gov­ern­ment and has pushed for a deep­en­ing of the rev­o­lu­tion. It remains to be seen whether these forces can con­tinue to be con­tained with­out Chávez at the helm of the Rev­o­lu­tion.

Those who die for life can’t be called dead.– Alí Primera

When Nicolás Maduro announced the death of Chávez, he insisted the Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was big­ger than its osten­si­ble leader. He quoted Alí Primera, the Venezue­lan folk singer and com­mu­nist mil­i­tant of the 1970s and 1980s, “Los que mueren por la vida no pueden lla­marse muer­tos” – those who die for life can’t be called dead. The cho­rus has been repeated count­less times since.

Primera quotes and songs are reg­u­lar fea­tures of the social and polit­i­cal life of chav­ismo. The per­sis­tence of Primera’s music high­lights the con­ti­nu­ity of strug­gles against cap­i­tal­ism, poverty, inequal­ity, and depri­va­tion in Venezuela. In this way, they are a par­tic­u­larly strik­ing sum­mary of the sequence of strug­gles that will inevitably, if mis­lead­ingly, be referred to as “the Chávez era.” Chávez was the pro­duct of a sequence of strug­gles that did not end when he assumed office, nor will it end with his death. He should be remem­bered as he saw him­self: a com­rade in the strug­gle against exploita­tion and against cap­i­tal­ism.

We honor our dead by con­tin­u­ing the fight we shared with them.

1. The advances of the Boli­var­ian project in terms human and social wel­fare are par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in that Venezuela reduced absolute and rel­a­tive inequal­ity at the same time as the gap between rich and poor was grow­ing in the “devel­oped” North. Venezuela was declared an ‘illit­er­acy free’ coun­try by the UN by 2005, and the gov­ern­ment has pri­or­i­tized pro­vid­ing the pop­u­la­tion with free health care and edu­ca­tion as well as access to heav­ily sub­si­dized basic food­stuffs and dig­ni­fied hous­ing. Against doom­say­ers on the Left and Right the coun­try has weath­ered the post-2008 ‘great reces­sion’ bet­ter than the United States and Euro­zone and has con­tin­ued to diver­sify its inter­na­tional diplo­matic and trad­ing ties both region­ally and glob­ally.

2. The phrase “man­dar obe­di­ciendo” was first made famous by the Zap­atista Rebels of Chi­a­pas, Mex­ico for auton­omy and against neolib­er­al­ism in 1994. As a polit­i­cal prin­ci­ple, to “rule by obey­ing” invokes hor­i­zon­tal, inclu­sive, and par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy (referred to in Venezuela as “pro­tag­o­nism”) and is explic­itly opposed to the norms of lib­eral, rep­re­sen­ta­tive and mar­ke­tized democ­ra­cies of the North Atlantic.

3The New York Times, for exam­ple, imme­di­ately endorsed the failed 2002 coup against Chávez. The obscene obverse of the rush of US and Euro­pean media out­lets to raise con­cerns with Chávez’s “divi­sive­ness” and a-lib­eral take on demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance can be seen in the Left’s equally mis­guided attempts to lay out Chávez’s “legacy.” Both approaches to the death of a pub­lic fig­ure mis­take what is at stake. While it is entirely appro­pri­ate to mourn Chávez as a fal­len com­rade in strug­gle, it is nonethe­less equally impor­tant to avoid rein­forc­ing the dis­em­pow­er­ing myth that he was some­how the Boli­var­ian Revolution’s only indis­pen­si­ble par­tic­i­pant or leader or the “sav­ior” of the Venezue­lan peo­ple.

4. Roland Denis, Rebe­lión en Pro­ceso: Dile­mas del Movimiento Pop­u­lar luego de la Rebe­lión del 13 de Abril, (Edi­ciones de Nues­tra América, 2005).

5. Don­ald Kings­bury, “Between Mul­ti­tude and Pueblo: Venezuela’s Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the Gov­ern­ment of Ungovern­abil­ity,” New Polit­i­cal Sci­ence 35.4 (Decem­ber 2013).

6. The round­table hosted by the jour­nal His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism in 2001 offers impor­tant insight into this strug­gle. See Spronk, et al. “The Boli­var­ian Process in Venezuela: A Left Forum,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, Vol­ume 19, Num­ber 1, 2011, pp. 233-270.

7. Pablo Navar­rete and Jody McIn­tyre, “Venezuela’s Hip Hop Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies,” March 4, 2012.

8. George Cic­cariello-Maher, “Dual Power in the Venezue­lan Rev­o­lu­tion,” Monthly Review, Vol­ume 59, issue 4, 2007, pp. 42-56, at pg. 42.

9. See, for exam­ple, Fer­nando Coro­nil and Julie Skurski “Dis­mem­ber­ing and Remem­ber­ing the Nation” in their edited vol­ume States of Vio­lence (Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Press, 2006), pp. 83-152 and George Ciccariello-Maher’s forth­com­ing We Cre­ated Chávez: A People’s His­tory of the Venezue­lan Rev­o­lu­tion (Duke, 2013).

10. The expres­sion “coun­ter rev­o­lu­tion and reform” has been used by Gre­gory Wilpert to char­ac­ter­ize the early years of the Chávez gov­ern­ment. See his Chang­ing Venezuela by Tak­ing Power (Verso, 2007).

Author of the article

is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at UC Santa Cruz, and will soon be relocating to the University of Toronto. His current book project, To Rule by Obeying?: State and Power after Neoliberalism in Bolivarian Venezuela, tracks the revolutionary dialectic of constituent and constituted power in Venezuela from the 1980s to the present. He never got to meet Hugo Chávez. They did shake hands once, but he doubts he made much an impression on el Comandante.