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.