14 June, 2024


Hugo Chávez: A Leader Who Challenged Neo-Liberalism And Washington

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Sumanasiri Liyanage

Although his death did not come as a surprise, it generated a feeling of innumerable loss, a loss not for only for the poor, marginalized and progressive people in Venezuela but also for the toiling masses all over the world. In the heyday of neo-liberalism, he attacked it and went against it. When people were scared of the US and its aggression against people in Iraq and Afghanistan, he singlehandedly challenged Washington. He was not afraid of defeat and when he felt the warning sign, he became offensive and fought back. He was determined that he would not allow the US imperialists to redo Chile in Venezuela in the 21st Century. In spite of the allegations made by organizations like Human Rights Watch financed by corrupt financiers, he created a new kind of democracy and gave democracy a new meaning. His Bolivarian experiment has generated a glimmer of hope to the poor people in the world. As Tariq Ali correctly characterized him, ‘he was one of the political giants of the post-communist era’.

As soon as the death of the president was known, people began to gather in the Bolivar squares in the centre of cities and towns across the country. They marched towards the Miraflores presidential palace, shouting slogans of defiance, “the people united will never be defeated”, “they shall not be back” and “the struggle continues”. Bolivarian experiment that Hugo Chavez began in 1999 has changed significantly the social, economic and political landscape in Venezuela. The neoliberal policies that Pinochet brutally pioneered in Chile in the 1970s after killing duly elected President Salvador Allende were rolled out across the Latin American continent and in many third world countries from the early 1980s onwards. Venezuelan President Carlos Andrez Perez introduced the WB-IMF backed ‘Great Turn’ based on Washington Consensus at the end of the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1997 the richest 10% of Venezuelans saw their share of national income grow from 22 to 33%. Poverty, inequality and unemployment had increased. The Venezuelan poor responded to the neo-liberal turn with occupations, mass protests and riots popularly known as the Caracazo. It was in this context that Charvez was for the first time democratically elected in 1998. In 2002 he was thrown out by a coup orchestrated by the generals, church leaders and big business and backed by the US. However, Venezuelan people, unlike the Chilean people in 1971, surrounded Miraflores presidential palace and forced the coup leaders to step down once again paying the way for Chavez to come to power. Democracy in the street as well in the polling booth showed that people wanted a change, social transformation, and power to the people. Chavez thus won all the elections he faced despite the fact that many opinion polls manipulated by media conglomerates showed that his opponents had a better chance to defeat him at the elections.

Social Change

After 2002 coup attempt against his regime, Chavez introduced a radical program of economic change. The rise of oil price contributed him in implementing this program that delivered big improvements to the Venezuelan poor. Housing schemes, subsidized food programs, new medical centers and a literacy program, all organized through popular ‘missions’, made a huge impact on the life of millions of people. Nearly half of the population has regularly received cheap food supplies from the state. As a result poverty has reduced significantly in the last 14 years of Chavez’s rule. Living standard of poor and marginalized people has increased. Popular control has improved through setting up of neighborhood committees and popular control. Austerity and belt-tightening for poor were not in Chavez’s agenda.

All these gains notwithstanding, Chavez refused to use over-inflated phrases to depict his social program. His position, viewpoint and perspective is portrayed best in the following words of Tariq Ali recalling his meeting with Chavez:

‘The following year in Caracas I questioned him further on the Bolívarian project. What could be accomplished? He was very clear; much more so than some of his over-enthusiastic supporters: ”I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labor – and never forget that some of it was slave labor – then I say: ‘We part company.’ I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. We said: ‘You must pay your taxes.’ I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.”

Foreign Policy

It is interesting to note that Chavez’s foreign policy was consistent with his domestic policies and was based on the same principles. He knew very well that the local big business, media giants and his political opponents were not working in isolation. He observed that they were backed and discreetly supported by the US imperialism. In my view, there were two principal pillars in his foreign policy, namely (1) unconditional opposition to US imperialism and aggression; (2) the formation and strengthening of the united front of Latin American countries. He characterized the US as No 1 enemy of the poor and marginalized people in the world. It was secret for him that the so-called campaigns for democracy and human rights had been now reduced into techniques of governmentality deployed by the US imperialists and their lackeys. This perspective led to understand the complexity of the new situation in the Arab World. Hence Chavez opposed the US intervention in toto wherever and whenever it was in action. When Obama responding to Chavez’s death informed that the US can now have new kind of engagement with Venezuela, he tried to single out Chavez from the movement he built since 1994. The US imperialists might have thought that the main obstacle for their aggressive policy in Latin and Central America was now removed.

The great women and men cannot be easily replaced. Hugo Chavez was one of the greatest leaders of the 21st Century. The process he initiated in unleashing in Venezuela may not be easy o be turned back. His demise may create a vacuum and ebb in the process. However, his movement brought people into continuous and constant action and intervention. So the specter Chavez will be alive in future. As Tariq Ali wrote Chavez was an admirable leader. “At a time when the world had fallen silent, when centre-left and centre-right had to struggle hard to find some differences and their politicians had become desiccated machine men obsessed with making money, Chávez lit up the political landscape.”

*Photo courtesy the Guardian

*The writer is a co-coordinator of Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and negombo- E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I have followed Hugo Chavez’s tug of war with several US administrations and admired his courage in the face of often overwhelming odds.

    The US and Western hegemonic designs generally loathe a progressive leader who dared to nationalise the oil industry and distribute the profits to the poor, whereas earlier the oil magnates of the US stole all the profits.

    Several attempts were made on his ife, by the CIA simply becuse his socialistic policies helped revolutionise the latin American continent away from puppet-led western-backed tyrannies to become people’s governments.

    Lets hope Venezuelans do not give up their fight against imperialist western designs with Chavez’s demise…

  • 0

    Chavez was a benevolent dictator who intimidated his detractors at home and supported and associated with dictators like Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gadaffi abroad. He didn’t create a utopia in Venezuela but redistributed the oil wealth and left the nation poor and indebted. Long term economic prospects for the country will be bleak if his policy of wealth redistribution is continued by his successor.

    • 0

      What an idiotic comment by a corrupt know all?

      So redistribution is bad, is it?

      Go to hell.

      • 0

        Sanitiser seems like an incorrigible dyed in the wool socialist. Wake up man. Socialism, like Marxism, is dead.

        You redistribute wealth and make everyone poor. That is socialism for you. Look at Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. And what about China and Russia?

        • 0

          Piranha, these buggers whose hearts bleed for the poor think by taking over the wealth of others and just distributing to the Party cronies will bring about development. We saw what happened with our own Land Reform and the take over what happened to the Agriculture Economy. Then we saw the Rent Act and the distribution of so called excess houses, killed the Housing Industry where investment in housing slumped and the masses suffered till it was rectified later. We see China with their brand of Socialism the new Political order has become the new Billionaires and they are protected by the Military inturn who are looked after better than over a poor peasants numbering over a Billion people. In Venuzuela also Chavez had the full backing of the US as is happening here with MR and all the threats and accusations between them and the US was only for public consumption.

  • 0

    Sumanasiri Liyanage has to get his facts right.
    Hugo Chavez was deemed a hero by the Western Left and SL is obviously following that line.
    The fact is that it is hard to find in recent history a ruler who so comprehensively betrayed the wellbeing of his country. His chums were the attrocious dictators Robert Mugabe,Syria’s Asad,North Korea’s Kim Dynasty,Cuba’s Castro family and previous to that Saddam Hussein. Chavez called these dark dictiators his”brothers.” He squandered Venezuela’s vast oil wealth. His country ran at 22 %inflation and was corrupt to the core.The country arrived at severe financial straits at the time of Chavaz’ death that even Chin which had lent US$39 million against the future purchase of oil gave up on him sending his Foreign minister back without any money.

  • 0

    “His political opponents criticize him because he talks too much. I always thought that the problem is not his talking, but there’ll be a problem when he stops talking.” Jorge Kwan, university proffessor, Venezuela

    Chavez, the poor from the slums, the downtrodden and the oppressed will miss you!!

  • 0

    Don’t even pretend the Chavez style has anything to do with SL style. We are a capitalist autocracy. A dictatorship for the chosen few, with a media circus that appeals to the poor.

    Chavez actually empowered the poor, even though many of his policies failed miserably, as he failed to realize that greed is the only answer to economic growth. He was not able to control it, thereby the very wealthy though they hated him, ensured that there wealth was only marginally touched by him, by safely socking it away.

    We live in a globalized world where we cannot take from the rich and give to the poor as we have a world without borders, especially for the wealthy.

    Chavez pretended to be a socialist but sold ALL his oil to the US as that was the only market that he could find. If he stopped selling to the US he would be sunk, though the US could buy from anyone else. So spare a thought for the real world in which Chavez lived and died. He cared more about his country, than our leaders care about ours. That simply is the difference.

  • 0

    There are moments in history of when people of all nations world seem to rise up,to say that Hegemony of USA lead something is wrong to ask for CHANGE.There was upheavals years 1917 October Revolution under leadership of Lenin and Stalin in Russia.,1949 under leadership of Mao in China Revolution, 1959 Fidel Castro in Cuba of Revolution,had been fundamental change occur different Western capitalism and imperialist hegemony.
    Those revolution shook human history an open NEW PATH for people-world
    The Venezuela neo-liberalism of US led economic policies and political system had fail and that both were fundamentally wrong and unfair.
    Hugo Chavez of Venezuela products against of neo-capitalism,what they were told they did do,and what they actually do become too large to be ignored.
    Pre-Chavez era not addressing key economy of disparity and social,economic problems,including that persistent unemployment,gap between rich and poor,undermine values of fairness of democracy,had been sacrificed for greed of FEW.
    The society of greed few RICH ,become feeling unfairness great betrayal people of Venezuela .
    Hugo Chavez rise up against such few rich dictatorship rule by blessing of US led hegemony power run by puppet of Venezuela Ruling Class.
    Chavez had an opportunities to call for change through democratic process seek people’s mandate.He used electoral politics as tool to change political-economic order in faveour majority people’s interest.
    All his policies of internal and external during 14 years of RULE in line with and the that end with New International Order.
    Chavez become HERO OF NOT ONLY Venezuela as well as Latin America and other part of nations.
    That is not socialism ,but is applicable to newly emerge type of fair democracy order of majority people’s vital interest.

  • 0

    The successor to Hugo Chavez said ‘the imperialist elites who govern the United States should realise that they will have to treat the inserructionist peoples of latin america and the carribean with absolute respect from now on.

    Well said I would extend this and say ….the neo libratist imperialist forces that govern the West should wake up and realise that the peoples of much of the rest of the world would not stand being bullied and harrassed by the West anymore and would expect to be treated with absolute respect from now onwards!

    It is obvious that the Wes is not admired by the rest of the world but much disliked. I hope the Western leaders realise this and change their ways.

    Hugo Chvez you are a hero of our times. You will be sadly missed.

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