Hugo Chávez: reluctant revolutionary
Julia Buxton follows his political journey to the left – from someone who admired Tony Blair to ‘fiery populist’ and champion of the Venezuelan poor.
When Hugo Chávez Frias became President of Venezuela in 1998, he was not the ‘fiery populist’ who died from cancer on 5 March 2013. 14 years ago he had a vision of social democracy. The welfare would be paid for by such ‘revolutionary’ new ideas as income tax. He praised Tony Blair as a role model and talked about finding a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism in Venezuela. His ideological journey further to the left and to Twenty First Socialism was because of the strong resistance to his initial modest plans.
In 1998, Chávez was a former lieutenant colonel with no experience of politics. He went into politics after he lead a failed attempt at a coup against the neoliberal government, led by President Carlos Andrés Pérez, in 1992.
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Traditionally, the Latin American military thought that it was their role to save the nation from civilian politicians. But Chávez was also influenced by new ideas like those of General Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, rather than the strict authoritarian regimes of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Chávez knew that underdevelopment and exploitation were the greatest threat to the Venezuelan Republic, in the vision of Simon Bolivar, its 19th century independence leader.
Chávez came from a modest family: his parents were school teachers in the state of Barinas. Chávez learnt a good, professional career in the military, but he was shocked by the corruption of the leaders chosen by the Venezuelan Congress.
With a group of other officers, Chávez started the secret Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 in 1982. The members committed to Simon Bolívar’s 1805 promise to break the chains of oppression. They tried to take over the government in February 1989 because government security was used to stop protests. About 3,000 people were killed. Chávez said in 2010 that this was the spark that lit the Bolivarian Revolution.
Chávez and his MBR-200 group came out of prison with the intention of starting a new Fifth Republic together with the civilian left. He had enormous success in the 1998 presidential election. His victory gave control of the country to a new group: a different class, races and interests. The country had been controlled by the Social and Christian Democrat parties (AD and COPEI) since it became a democracy in 1958.
Today, Chávez is remembered as a champion of the poor. Venezuela was once one of the most unequal countries in the world, and in his first years, he focused on changing the constitution. But there was strong resistance to these early efforts to build a social democracy. Resistance came from elite groups in the unions, in business, in the Roman Catholic church and in the media.
Social justice revolution
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When the opposition led a coup in 2002 and Chávez survived, he changed his priorities and style. He survived because of the tens of thousands of barrio (shanty town) residents that protested for him to go, so Chávez changed the revolution to focus on social justice. The international oil price went up after 2004 and this made the government able to provide money for popular clinics, employment training, credit provision and building schools and housing. The number of families in poverty fell by 50%, and there were many new supporters for Chávez.
The 2002 coup attempt was also the beginning of a more pro-active foreign and energy policy. The Chávez government tried to cut off from the unfriendly US by making new alliances around its oil economy. Iran, China and Russia became important partners. So did the many left of center presidents in Latin America during the 2000s. Chávez led the new regional initiatives trying to reduce the influence of the International Monetary Fund and US influence in Latin America. He benefited from the people’s anger at neoliberalism, free trade agreements and the US ‘war on terror’. He benefited from the publicity he got from criticising the Bush administration and international capitalism. In 2006 he was re-elected for promising to build Twenty First Century socialism. In his last six years, he tried to consolidate the role of the state in the economy.
There were many different groups and interests within the ‘Chavista’ movement, and Chávez kept these together. His charisma and direct style seemed old-fashioned and sometimes very controlling to critics. But it created a strong popular commitment to the figure of the president. Chávez was the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution and it was because the Chavistas depended on his personality that he stood for president in October 2012 even though he was ill. In June 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer and he started chemotherapy treatment. After Chávez won, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were able to focus on the transition to a post Chávez era, which no-one had been able to imagine before. As his party planned, Chávez spent his last weeks with his family. Chávez transformed the politics of Venezuela and the future of the region. What he did (that not everyone agrees on) will last for a long time.
Dr Julia Buxton is Head of International Relations and Security Studies (IRSS), Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.
As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2013/03/08/hugo-chavez-reluctant-revolutionary/