Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was born on 28 July 1954, the second of six sons of impoverished primary school teachers. Chávez enrolled in Venezuela’s military academy at the age of 17, graduating near the top of his class in 1975
After graduating, he was posted to a counter-insurgency unit charged with subduing an armed Maoist rebel group called Red Flag operating in a rural part of eastern Venezuela. There, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, as a result of contact with these fighters, Chávez came to question the inequality in Venezuelan society that Red Flag had hoped to eliminate, and opposed the brutal treatment meted out to the guerrillas. [Let us give some thought to the brave communist fighters, whose principled stand must have influenced the young army officer, even as they were being brutally tortured by the regime that he served.]
Failed coup attempt
In 1989, then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez won an election on a platform of standing up to the austerity being imposed via the IMF. He famously proclaimed that the IMF was “a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing“. But once elected on the basis of this popular demand, he did a 180 degree turn and imposed further austerity on the Venezuelans at the behest of the IMF and drowned the protests of the masses in blood.
This was the context in which in February 1992, Hugo Chávez and his army associates decided to rise up in rebellion, but their coup failed and Chávez was forced to surrender. His surrender was televised and he took the opportunity to announce on TV that though the rebellion had failed, this was only ‘por ahora’ – for now. ‘Por ahora’ became a catchword of the Venezuelan revolution.
He and his fellow rebel officers were court-martialled, and sent to prison but after two years Chávez was freed.
In 1998, he stood in presidential elections and was elected by a population tired of austerity. At first, he was supported by all the old guard, for they expected that a military man like himself would follow the traditions of military rulers wherever they are to be found: ie, to settle his fee and then carry on as before.
Chávez, however, broke the mould. He was determined to improve the situation of the poor, offering them land, education, health care and hope – and this notwithstanding the fact that he was a nationalist, not a communist. He was motivated by the belief that the wealth of Latin America belongs to the Latin Americans, not to foreign imperialists, and that it is Latin Americans who should profit from the exploitation of Latin America, not foreigners.
He knew that this policy put him on a collision course with imperialism and could only succeed to the extent that he could mobilise the masses against imperialism. Hence it was his priority to provide them with the basics they most need.
Attempted coup against Chávez
Chávez’s support for the poor was an anathema to the comprador ruling class of Venezuela and the various, mainly white, strata of society engaged in facilitating the imperialist looting of the country’s oil wealth. Hence plots were soon afoot to have him removed.
The enemy sector that caused most trouble to Chávez was to be found amongst those operating Venezuela’s oil industry. Pre-Chávez governments, who were tied hand and foot to the interests of US imperialism, had appointed its management personnel, and these cronies are said to have been siphoning off more than $40bn a year as their reward for delivering 13 percent of US oil needs at the ‘right price’. And it was not just management cronies, but also cronies in the leadership of the oil workers’ trade unions who benefited from this slush fund.
On 11 April 2002 a major coup attempt was mounted against Chávez and his government.
The military, businessmen, trade unionists and media were behind the coup, many of whom were funded by the US Department of State through the National Endowment for Democracy. A prominent businessman, Pedro Carmona, was installed as ‘President’.
Chávez’s supporters responded by massing in the streets. Neither the masses nor the Venezuelan army were willing to accept Carmona, as a result of which Chávez was restored to power within 48 hours.
Less than a year later, the comprador bourgeoisie was again attempting to mobilise in order to bring about Chávez’s downfall by means of an oil industry strike in the first week of December 2002. By closing down the crucial oil industry, which accounted for about half of total government revenues and one third of GDP, they hoped to cripple the economy, reverse the government’s plans to take back a controlling stake in the national oil monopoly, and force fresh presidential elections, otherwise not due to take place until 2007.
In this strike, around 30,000 technical and administrative staff stayed away from work though most of the shop-floor workers ignored the strike call. Banks added to the pressure by closing their doors, meaning that thousands of workers were unable to access their money. Anti-Chávez demonstrations were organised, and shops in the middle-class areas closed down, but the huge mobilisation the opposition hoped for never materialised.
By Christmas, most of the strikers had returned to work, and the shops, unable to take any more losses, were open again. In late December the strike was declared illegal by the Supreme Court. Again the counter-revolution had failed, and again this was principally because the masses took to the streets in vast numbers to show their support for the government and the majority of the military also sided with the government.
Following the failure of the coup, new managers and directors were installed into the Venezuelan state oil company, (PDVSA).
In 2003, the situation in Venezuela was that 77 percent of farmland was owned by a mere 3 percent of the population. Despite the fact that Venezuela has vast tracts of fertile land, much of this was lying uncultivated, forcing the country at that time to import some 70 percent of its food, much of it supplied by US agribusiness.
Under Chávez’s presidency, a land act was passed prohibiting ownership of more than 5,000 hectares and allowing the expropriation of all unused land, of which there was rather a lot in Venezuela, much of it forming part of vast estates owned by the old aristocracy .
After 2005, the Venezuelan government has recovered more than 4m hectares (9.9m acres) out of the country’s total of around 30m hectares (74m acres) of agricultural land. This land has been either redistributed to smaller farmers, or retained by the state for use by farmers’ collectives. As a result agricultural production has expanded significantly in recent years, especially in dry grains.
In addition, local farmer-to-farmer programmes have been set up to exchange knowledge and skills, and special funds and support are provided to secure tractors, seeds, training and technical assistance to farming co-operatives.
The Venezuelan government has also set up 24 laboratories to develop biological pest control and fertilisers and to eliminate chemicals. The use of genetically-modified crops is also prohibited.
Many of the tractors being supplied to the collective farms are now being produced in Venezuela by a joint venture company set up with Iran – Veniran Tractors.
Venezuela has also launched satellite Miranda to monitor agricultural lands across the country. Satellite imagery will allow the government to oversee the use of around 15m hectares (37m acres) of agricultural land, and determine how land is being utilised.
As a result of all these measures, Venezuela has been able to cut food imports from 90 percent to 30 percent of its consumption. In terms of specific products, national production has since 1998 risen to include self-sufficiency in corn and rice production, and a rise in pork production by almost 77 percent, that now exceeds national demand and makes exports of surplus pork now possible.
There has also been significant increase in the production of beef (meeting 70 percent of national demand), chicken (85 percent), eggs (80 percent), and milk (55 percent) , black beans (143 percent), root vegetables (115 percent), and sunflowers for cooking oil (125 percent).
Urban food security measures
In the towns steps have been taken to provide home-cooked, nutritious meals both to the poor and to all school children who receive two free meals per school-day. In addition, employees in workplaces of more than 20 people are provided with a hot meal every day.
Chávez’s anti-imperialist measures
Chávez was never in any doubt that the main enemy of the Venezuelan masses is imperialism, US imperialism in particular. It was glaringly obvious to everybody that the Venezuelan masses had been subjected to hardships and harsh IMF austerity regimes, even while massive profits from the pumping of Venezuela’s oil were pouring into imperialist coffers, with barely any benefit to Venezuela at all.
He was also aware of the massive amounts of money being taken out of the Venezuelan economy by the servicing of loans – money owed to imperialist financiers. Furthermore, oil was not the only vital area of the Venezuelan economy controlled by imperialist concerns when Chávez took power – and, of course, wherever imperialist concerns were in charge, the interests of the Venezuelan people never figured at all.
He determined that core Venezuelan industries should all be renationalised, and also that the country’s debts to imperialism should be paid off – and that is what was done.
Renationalisation of the oil reserves, a priority of the Bolivarian revolution following the 2006 election, was completed on 2 May 2007, when the government took hold of the Orinoco oil installations and handed them over for management by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA.
The overwhelming majority of the multinational companies who had stakes in Venezuelan oil – Total, Sincor, Chevron Texaco, ExxonMobil, BP and Veba oil, signed agreements with the state to allow them to continue to exploit a minority interest in the oil. A 2001 law cut foreign companies’ share of the sale price from 84 to 70 percent, and the royalties they had to pay increased to 16.6 percent on Orinoco basin heavy crude – they had formerly paid a mere 1 percent.
As a result, PDVSA came to account for about half of government revenues and three quarters of Venezuela’s exports. In May 2007, PDVSA also took over all the operations abandoned by ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total, as well as 46 oil rigs.
There were, however, problems, which Chávez sought to resolve by moving towards self-reliance. PDVSA’s 2007 plan had a target of 191 oil rigs to produce 3.3m barrels of oil per day (mbd), but in fact only 112 were then operational. This is partly because of a law in Venezuela that requires contract winners (including the providers of oil rigs) to put 10 percent of the contract value towards social programmes, and partly because of an international shortage of rigs, the cost of hire having doubled since the previous year to $400,000 a day.
In response to this problem, the Venezuelan government, besides having immediately acquired some rigs from Iran and China, arranged for Chinese rigs to be assembled in Venezuela. This graphically goes to show the incompatibility of socialism with a market economy. The shortage of oil rigs was directly related to the economic ‘inefficiency’ of undermining profitability by creating decent facilities for workers and their families!
Following Chávez’s death, virtually all the bourgeois media have taken the opportunity to bemoan his alleged ‘economic mismanagement’, resulting in sluggish economic growth compared to, say, Brazil. Yet they admit that:
” During Hugo Chávez’s time in office, from 1999 to the present day, income inequality in Venezuela gradually declined, as it did in most of the region.
“The country now boasts the fairest income distribution in Latin America.” But this equality is not good enough, it is claimed:
“So every Venezuelan now has a more equal slice of the cake. The trouble is, that cake has not been getting much bigger.
“Instead of investing in PDVSA to increase production, Mr Chávez treated it as a cash cow, milking its funds to finance his social spending on housing, health care and transport.” (‘Hugo Chávez leaves Venezuela in economic muddle’, 5 March 2013)
There could be no better demonstration of the incompatibility of capitalism and socialism! Under capitalism, using production for the benefit of the masses – “social spending on housing, health care and transport” – is to use it “as a cash cow“. Production cannot be for the benefit of the masses! That is entirely inappropriate! Its purpose is the generation of profit through the generation of economic growth, which is why, in the opinion of the BBC, Chávez ought instead to have invested everything “in PDVSA to increase production“.
Colombia therefore is – according to the BBC – a success story because it has increased production, even if its people are still languishing in poverty and misery, forcibly held down by a vicious US-backed authoritarian regime.
In order to break the hold of US imperialism over the Venezuelan economy, it was important for Venezuela to break its dependence on the US (Venezuela’s largest oil market), which it was able to do through strengthening trade relations with China and neighbouring Latin-American states.
Steps have also been taken under the aegis of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) to move oil refineries currently situated in the US to Latin America.
With the majority renationalisation of the Venezuelan oil industry complete, other natural resources and basic industries were next in line, including the steel industry, private banks, electricity and telecommunications. The plan is to develop domestic industrial productive capacity to replace foreign-controlled private monopolies. The planned ‘social production enterprises’ will give workers partial ownership of the company.
It should be remembered that all those dispossessed were fully compensated, although none of the bourgeois media deigns to mention what effect these compensations have had on the national economy and its ‘growth’:
With regard to breaking financial ties with imperialism, on 13 April 2007, Chávez announced that Venezuela had paid off all monies owed to the IMF and World Bank and was now free of the heavy shackles of debt. ” We have transformed Venezuela, from an indebted and bound country that we were … to a modest but important country and financial centre that supports other countries and peoples .” (‘President Chávez announces World Bank debt has been paid off’, TeleSur/Prensa Web RNV, translated by Yoshie Furuhashi, 13 April 2007)
In place of heavy-strings-attached funding from imperialist banks, Venezuela now has the security of substantial reserves built up from oil revenues. (‘Venezuela: 20 percent minimum salary raise, withdrawal from World Bank and IMF’, Venezuelanalysis.com, 1 May 2007)
Chávez was also instrumental in setting up a Latin-American development bank, the Banco del Sur, which will enable countries in the region to borrow at low rates of interest and without conditions that damage the economy and the population.
On 26 September 2009, the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela signed an agreement establishing the Bank of the South with an initial capital of US$20bn. The bank is gearing up to commence operations this year and will constitute a lasting tribute to Chávez’s dream of a sovereign and independent Latin-American continent.
In July 2007, the first Venezuelan-made car rolled off the production line. As with the tractors mentioned earlier, it was the product of a Venezuela/Iran joint venture, Venirauto, inaugurated in November 2006, and which is 51 percent Iranian and 49 percent Venezuelan. Production currently stands at 16,000 cars a year.
Chávez also inaugurated a programme called ‘Socialist Factory 2007’, to create 200 state-owned socialist companies whose purpose was to make Venezuela self-sufficient in all kinds of manufactured goods, including cement, glass, bicycles, paper, plastics, rubber products, kitchen appliances, oil pipelines, wheelchairs, etc. Added to the existing state-owned companies, it was hoped that these would be in a position to compete with the private sector in almost every area of the economy.
” Poverty is down from 71 percent in 1996 to 21 now, and extreme poverty is down from 40 percent to 7.3. The programmes, or misiones, have reached 20 million people, and 2.1 million have received senior citizens’ pensions, a sevenfold increase under Mr Chávez. … the country now has 58 doctors per 10,000 people (as against 18 in 1996). As many as 96 percent of the population now have access to clean water, and with school attendance at 85 percent, one in three Venezuelans is enrolled in free education up to and including university”. (Sazzad Hussain, ‘Adios Chavez‘, Counter-currents.org, 7 March, 2013)
As already mentioned, Venezuela has made impressive advances whilst Chávez was at the helm in improving the lives of ordinary working-class and peasant people. For example, Proletarian carried an article in 2007 documenting progress to that date:
“In real (inflation-adjusted) terms, social spending per person increased by 170 percent during the period 1998-2006. But this did not include the state oil company PDVSA’s social spending, which was 7.3 percent of GDP in 2006. With this included, social spending was at least 314 percent more in 2006 than in 1998 (in terms of real social spending per person)… This has brought about significant gains for the poor in health care, subsidised food, and access to education …
“The official poverty rate, which measures only cash income and does not include such advances as increased access to health care and education, dropped by 31 percent from 1998 to the end of 2006 – from 43.9 percent of households to 30.6 percent. Measured unemployment dropped from 15 percent in June 1999 to 8.3 percent in June 2007.” (Center for Economic and Policy Research, ‘Venezuela’s economy during the Chávez years’, 26 July 2007)
And Owen Jones in the Independent, although he is no friend of anti-imperialism, brings us right up to date:
” The truth is that Chávez won democratic election after democratic election, despite the often vicious hostility of the media, because his policies transformed the lives of millions of previously ignored Venezuelans. Poverty has fallen from nearly half to 27.8 percent, while absolute poverty has been more than halved.
” Six million children receive free meals a day; near-universal free health care has been established; and education spending has doubled as a proportion of GDP. A housing programme launched in 2011 built over 350,000 homes, bringing hundreds of thousands of families out of sub-standard housing in the barrios. ” (‘Hugo Chávez was a democrat not a dictator’, The Independent, 6 March 2013).
Just as Chávez understood the need for people within Venezuela, seeing that their main enemy was imperialism, to sink their differences in order to confront imperialism as one, he could also see that anti-imperialist unity was needed between oppressed countries. The Banco del Sur initiative was one anti-imperialist initiative of this kind.
From Simon Bolivar, Chávez, like many other Latin-American revolutionaries before him, had a great yearning to bring about Latin-American unification, and he was happy to put at the disposal of all the peoples of Latin America a part of Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to help the process of unification.
Chávez worked closely with Fidel Castro on this front. Castro was an encouragement to Venezuela in its ‘Petrocaribe’ initiative – a multi-lateral energy cooperation scheme led by Venezuela that has been signed by 14 Caribbean nations – the aim of which was to supply oil to Caribbean countries at an affordable cost. Under the terms of its deal with Venezuela, Jamaica, for example, paid just $40 per barrel of oil, at a time when the market rate was over $60.
Another initiative in which Venezuela has played a leading role is in ALBA.
The fifth ALBA summit (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), held in Venezuela in April 2007, was attended by leaders from Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as by delegations from Ecuador, Uruguay, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The organisation had been set up by Chávez in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a neo-liberal economic project promoted by the US government in order to ‘remove trade barriers’ and thereby facilitate North-American imperialist exploitation of the continent. The objective of ALBA, by contrast, is to promote cooperation and collective development of the region with an emphasis on fighting poverty and social exclusion. Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan president, explained that ” the objective is not necessarily to maintain high economic statistics or attract investment, but rather to benefit our populations, so that they have health care, education, jobs and so they can get out of poverty “. (‘Fifth ALBA summit in Venezuela strengthens regional integration’ by Chris Carlson, Venezuelaanalysis.com, 29 April 2007)
Key to the venture are agreements for the supply of oil from Venezuela and joint financing of social and industrial projects. The establishment of joint companies for the exploitation of natural resources – Cuban-Venezuelan stainless steel plant and nickel plants; a Nicaraguan-Venezuelan aluminium plant; joint plans for the extraction of Bolivian iron, alongside steel and cement plants – will strengthen regional industry and decrease dependence on the US and other imperialist states.
Similarly, Venezuelan health and education missions are to be extended to ALBA territories, to the mutual benefit of all.
Venezuela’s leading role in fomenting this increased cooperation, backed up by its willingness to invest its natural wealth in the project, has been instrumental in assisting neighbouring states to escape the debt trap. With Venezuelan assistance Nicaragua and Argentina have been able to pay back millions of dollars owed to the IMF so as to be free of its diktat over their economies.
Furthermore, Chávez, perhaps because he too was demonised by the imperialist communications media, was perfectly able to recognise a fellow anti-imperialist. Hence he unstintingly supported the anti-imperialist governments, for instance, of Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, Ahmadinejad in Iran, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in the DPRK and Mugabe in Zimbabwe, without for one moment being taken in by the imperialist hate-speak against these towering figures of the world anti-imperialist resistance.
Empowerment of the oppressed and the fight for racial equality
It is not just that the poor are experiencing a much-enhanced quality of life in material terms. Even more important is that their voice, for so long suppressed, is now heard and they have real power to influence their own lives.
An important vehicle for this is through Bolivarian Circles, self-organised groups based along the lines of the Cuban CDRs (Committees to Defend the Revolution). Funded directly by the government, some 70,000 circles have when necessary been able to organise over a million workers and peasants outside the bourgeois state apparatus to defend by force of arms the gains won so far – and to push them further.
“These ‘Bolivarian Councils of Workers’ (workers’ councils) have been set up as ‘ political organisations of the working class, based on direct democracy and control over production’. Alongside these representative bodies, another source of community power is being encouraged through the formation of 19,000 Communal Councils, each made up of 200-400 families (smaller groups in rural areas). Discussions within these forums are progressing towards the setting up of federations of Communal Councils to tackle larger projects .” (‘Venezuela’s revolution accelerates’ by Federico Fuentes, Green Left Weekly, 25 April 2007)
Such self-organised, democratic organisations of peasants and workers can be the germ of an alternative working-class state power, and the fact that they have arms and are prepared to defend themselves means that the Bolivarian revolution will be no easy pushover. No wonder the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and their imperialist backers are terrified of what they have dubbed the “circles of terror“.
Furthermore, the Venezuelan masses enjoy a privilege that is certainly not available in this country, namely, access to the media.
A Christian Science Monitor article in 2005 noted:
“Chávez has struck back against the established media through Vive TV, a state-sponsored station..
” According to its website, Vive TV promotes ‘the common citizen, Through Vive’s programming, claim the station’s managers, ‘it is possible to acquaint oneself with the reality, lives and struggle of people of African descent [and] indigenous peoples.’
” As Blanca Eekhout, the former manager of Vive explains, people of colour previously ‘have appeared in the media but in a stigmatised way; they are shown as marginal people, criminals. They are not shown building, constructing, which is part of the struggle for the development of the country. That’s one thing we are trying to change.’ …
” Chávez has also increased the visibility of Latin America’s indigenous peoples through the launching of the government-sponsored Televisora del Sur (Telesur).”
Since 2005, giant strides forward have been taken in the battle against racism and discrimination in the media.
“The new state-funded channels (and there are several of them too, plus innumerable community radio stations) are doing something completely different, and unusual in the competitive world of commercial television. Their programmes look as though they are taking place in Venezuela, and they display the cross-section of the population to be seen on cross-country buses or on the Caracas metro.
” As in every country in the world, not everyone in Venezuela is a natural beauty. Many are old, ugly and fat. Today they are given a voice and a face on the television channels of the state. Many are deaf or hard of hearing. Now they have sign language interpretation on every programme. Many are inarticulate peasants. They too have their moment on the screen. Their immediate and dangerous struggle for land is not just being observed by a documentary filmmaker from the city; they are being taught to make the films themselves.
“Blanca Eekhout … coined the slogan ‘Don’t watch television, make it’. Classes in filmmaking have been set up all over the country. Lil Rodriguez, an Afro-Venezuelan journalist and the boss of TVES, the channel that replaces RCTV, claims that it will become ‘a useful space for rescuing those values that other models of television always ignore, especially our Afro-heritage.’ With time, the excluded will find a voice within the mainstream.” (Richard Gott, ‘The battle over the media is about race as well as class’, The Guardian, 9 June 2007)
Chávez and socialism
As Chávez fought for the equality, dignity and human rights of ordinary Venezuelan people of all colours, religious beliefs, and both genders, he built up a stronger and stronger understanding that capitalism is simply incompatible with these ideals:
“Eleven years ago [when first elected] I was quite gullible. I even believed in a ‘third way’. I believed it was possible to put a human face on capitalism, but I was wrong. The only way to save the world is through socialism … Capitalism is destroying the world .” (BBC TV Hardtalk interview with Hugo Chávez, 13 June 2010)
We have seen above that the harder Chávez fought for the ‘human rights’ so lauded by western imperialism, the more he was demonised as a dictator, a monster, a madman, an egomaniac, an ignoramus, and the like. We have seen how social programmes totally undermine the viability of a market economy, the beating heart of the capitalist system. Chávez was not too proud to learn as he fought for what he believed in, which is perhaps the most important quality of leadership.
Chávez’s enthusiasm for giving himself body and soul to the service of the masses is poignantly demonstrated by this prayer of his that was overheard in April 2012 after he learnt of his illness: ” I ask God to give me life, however painful. I can carry 100 crosses, your crown of thorns, but don’t take me yet. I still have things to do.” (Quoted in ‘Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s anti US socialist leader, dies at 58’ by Charlie Devereux and Daniel Cancel, Bloomberg, 5 March 2013)
Certainly his leadership in Venezuela’s and Latin America’s struggle against western imperialist for independence and sovereignty will be sorely missed. Imperialism is hoping that with Chávez gone the fire will go out of the struggle.
Jonathan Watts, whose article was put on line within minutes of Comrade Chávez’s death, put the imperialist hopes into words:
“His death will … trigger a presidential election, to be held within 30 days, to decide who controls the world’s greatest untapped reserves of oil. ” (Guardian, 6 March 2013)
Western imperialists are hoping to have that oil back under their control within a very short time. We believe they will be disappointed.
The Venezuelan and Latin-American people will now have to carry on their struggle without Chávez. We are confident, however, that from the millions of inhabitants and militant workers of the region, his place will be taken by worthy successors who, inspired by his example, will complete the tasks that have been initiated under Chávez’s leadership.