Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution

15 November 2005
Achin Vanaik

Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution
Achin Vanaik
The Telegraph, Calcutta, 27 December 2004

Fidel Castro's mythic status amongst Latin America's poor is long secured but it is President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela that is today that continent's most charismatic figure. Unlike any of his counterparts elsewhere (barring Castro) he is both a man of action and of thought. A voracious reader, in an inaugural address to some 350 delegates from 52 countries attending the "World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humankind" in Caracas between December 1-6, 2004, Chavez made learned reference to numerous writers, poets, philosophers and political thinkers - from Lorca and Unamuno, to Russell, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and Nietszche, to Marx, Trotsky and Leonardo Boff of liberation theology fame. Unafraid to call Falluja the Guernica of our times, he presents a dramatic contrast to the reticence of most other leaders in this respect. He can coolly and rationally argue why socialism, Bolivarianism and 'Christianism' are united by an essential commitment to social justice and to the poor; and can then emotionally declare that the soul of a recently visited Brazil lay in its shanty towns and how the soul of Latin America is indissolubly merged with Africanism. No wonder then that he has polarized Venezuelan society as never before.

He is loathed by the country's richest 20%. They see him as a closet Communist and Fidelista who by imposing capital controls has prevented their capital flight abroad, as well as enforcing much stricter tax collection standards. American oil majors (backed by Washington) hate him. Oil extraction royalties once pegged at 1% are now 17%. The country's state petroleum industry (PDVSA) - once a state within a state - has been wrested away from the nexus between external oil companies and domestic collaborating classes and their combined patronage-client networks. For the first time in Venezuela's history, 'oil for the people' has become a reality. The world's fifth-ranked oil producer has a shocking 44% (conservatively estimated) of its 25 million population below the poverty line. The US government is even more incensed not only because they have lost heir Trojan Horse in OPEC, but also because Chavez does not hesitate to forcefully and publicly denounce its imperial ambitions and arrogance and its use of terrorism to fight terrorism. The IMF/WB are fearful that his neo-populist rejection of their neoliberal dogmas could prove 'infectious'. Health and education are now constitutionally sanctioned fundamental rights being provided to the majority poor free of user charges. Pocket book editions of the Constitution are being printed on a massive scale and distributed free so that people can become aware of their rights. There is a conscious policy of promoting greater food self-sufficiency (over 70% of foodstuffs are currently imported despite abundant fertile land) through distributing land to tens of thousands of peasant families and stressing the development of competitive public and cooperative sectors in light manufactured goods - all anathema to the Bretton Woods twins.

Some 25% Venezuelans are broadly sympathetic to Chavez with another 25% wavering, while 30% will die for him. Such passions for and against are testimony to the fact that Venezuela is undergoing a genuine revolutionary upheaval whose final destiny is uncertain though Chavez is politically at his peak. Hs resounding referendum victory in August 2004 was followed in October by electoral capture of 21 out of the country's 23 states and 270 out of 335 municipalities, while the military is firmly under his control. His real political genius, however, has lain in the way he has redefined Bolivarianism as the guiding spirit and ideology of his overall political project. Simon Bolivar, though born in Venezuela and a national hero, is the continent's greatest symbol of independence against external colonialism. Bolivarianism therefore has mass appeal across national boundaries making Chavez a threat to elite regimes elsewhere. His decisive innovation was to elevate to heroic status, Bolivar's one-time teacher Simon Rodriguez - a radical humanist who left a body of writing expressing his lifelong commitment to justice for the poor. This has provided a social content to Bolivarianism it never earlier possessed and simultaneously given indigenous ideological roots that protect Chavez from rightwing charges of 'importing' Communism, even as he disconcerts a traditionalist Latin American left looking for the absent Marxist-inspired cadre-party that is supposed to be backing any such progressive project.

In less than two years Chavez has transformed social policy and practice by building independent structures of material provision parallel to the corrupt, bureaucratized and inept official ministries of health and education. In most barrios (working class neighbourhoods) throughout the country there now exists an integrated community complex. Well-equipped medical clinics staffed by 17,000 Cuban doctors, dentists, surgeons (who live and eat with local volunteer families) provide quality treatment for free and do it with respect for the dignity of their patients. In keeping with the Cuban concept of public health there are Cuban instructors and sports facilities. Neighbourhood soup kitchens provide two square meals a day to the identified homeless. To complete the picture there will be a subsidized supermarket for cheap basic foodstuffs, a modest cultural-recreational center, and facilities for elementary education for young and old illiterates, with secondary schooling and technical colleges and universities for the poor developing fast. The overall result is the emergence of vibrant community-based structures of popular participation that can become the foundation for the construction of a nationally coordinated system of popular democracy that can ensure the long term success of his Bolivarian revolution, i.e., eventually outlasting Chavez himself. Indispensable today, he must not remain so tomorrow.

Internal and external obstacles remain. An amazing, near one million militants organized into 'electoral battle units', were responsible for Chavez's referendum victory despite total media hostility. One-third must now become committed cadres organised into 'social battle units' to carry his project forward by outflanking the corrupt and faction-ridden Fifth Republic Movement - the party that formally supports Chavez - while over the next decade the moribund, reactionary and pro-US civilian bureaucracies must be revamped, difficult though it is, by the infusion of idealistic young blood trained also to be professionally competent. Externally, what can the US political establishment and their Venezuelan cohorts do or hope for? Occupied in the Middle East a direct US invasion is ruled out for the time being. The best option for Chavez-haters is a three-pronged strategy. Ideologically, wage the fiercest possible propaganda campaign against him. Economically, try and destabilize his rule by whatever means including sabotage. Militarily, encourage the Columbian army and government to carry out an unofficial insurgency war on Venezuela. But the most effective short-term measure would be the assassin's bullet, a possibility made all too real as witnessed by the recent car-bomb killing of Chavez's public prosecutor.

In all likelihood, President Chavez will make an official visit to India early next year. It is too much to expect an Indian government so ideologically in hock to neoliberalism and so keen to forge a strategic alliance with the US to even try and understand let alone endorse Bolivarianism. But for narrowly pragmatic reasons, New Delhi might see some merit in significantly deepening trade and investment ties with Caracas; exploring the possibility for greater South-South political cooperation; and in promoting wider, stronger and freer connections between the cultural and intellectual associations of civil society in both countries. Just this much will be welcome.

Copyright 2004 The Telegraph