Chavismo without Chávez

Venezuela_PoorWhere the death of Hugo Chávez has been noticed in the Western media, it’s typically been framed in terms of two quite old polarities.

Chávez and his movement began to encroach on the institutions of the State and of the press, so therefore he is a Tyrant or a Dictator. A more nuanced take on this theme is to point to areas where Chavismo has fallen short of what progressives would expect in a model Western state. This approach is usually blind to the mote in its own eye. Two rights don’t make a wrong, of course, but conversely, we should reflect before casting the first stone.

The second narrative is that Chávez dangerously threatens capitalism. Perhaps that one has force too: it’s often argued that Venezuela has simultaneously surfed the rise of oil prices and rejected the ideology of markets. This theme has a tendency to collapse into the ultimate Cold War binary – Chávez = Communist. Of course, in a globalised market, socialism works within capitalism. Indeed, one of the structural reasons for the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European regimes was their need to take on huge debt in the 1970s and 1980s. It was simply impossible to run an autarchic economy closed off from international finance. Along with the massive distance between rulers and their peoples, and egregious human rights breaches, this is one key cause for the ‘Fall of Communism’.

Implicit in this reading of Chavismo is a claim that socialism is dead. I think Latin American experience demonstrates that it is not. Socialism is always present as a tendency within capitalism. It doesn’t go away when Evil Empires fall, or through wishing it absent.

There’s also, quite often among those who would be more supportive of Chávez, a temptation to ignore the distributional implications of his policy, or downplay them, and to focus on his charisma and populism. But, again, we are dealing with contested terms whose meaning is not identical in, say, Holland, Australia and Venezuela.

To my mind, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser risks falling into this trap in what is nevertheless an interesting analysis on Open Democracy. But she is right to point out that the meaning of democracy is itself not uncontested.

I write all this neither to praise Hugo Chávez nor to damn him. I don’t advocate Chavismo as a model for Australian politics. I write it to suggest that we look at what has been achieved, and what has gone wrong, in a spirit of truth. And that we look at what is at stake in the various themes that dominate the interpretation of Chavez’ death and his continuing legacy.

On this, Guy Rundle writing in New Matilda is very interesting:

Between Latin America’s poor and those of the West there exists a division — poverty for many of the former means, or meant, chronic hunger and improvised shelter, a denial of basic life, while for the latter it is impoverished life, without the urgency of imminent total desperation. Making Venezuela’s poor invisible relies on the fact that such poverty on a mass scale has been largely forgotten in the West.

As such poverty returns, especially in the US, and it looks increasingly unlikely that neoliberalism will generate its own recovery, any real consideration of Chavez’s program is forbidden. What is truly remarkable about how his death has been treated is the degree to which the right has simply jettisoned any real concern for the poor. This marks a genuine moral decline from the “New Right” period of Thatcher-Reagan, which was constituted by its willingness to contest a left vision on a shared value, the desired universality of means of life.

It also suggests a measure of defensiveness. A more confident neoliberal movement would have taken apart Chavez’s regime piece by piece on its own terms. Instead, it is the last thing they want to talk about, lost in the kitsch of red shirts and Alo Presidente! Many of them are rejoicing at Chavez’s demise, assuming that the movement that took his name will now splutter and die. Instead, it may well be that it will consolidate and rationalise, that its next leadership will back away from Chavez’s charismatic and idiosyncratic style, and begin to address some of the structural problems they have inherited.

That would threaten a fresh nightmare for the right — a viable democratic socialism, a system where a private sector sits within the framework of a larger public and co-operative sector — just as the West enters a new period of stagnation.

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11 responses to “Chavismo without Chávez”

  1. paul burns

    Haven’t been to Venezuela but I know a few people who have. If they’re even half-right, there is no doubt that it is highly likely a viable democratic socialism will emerge there post-Chavez. And the Bolivarian Revolution embraces Peru, Uruguay etc as well. Suspect the US will have much to be displeased about when the Chavistas win the next Venezuelan election. And in the little I’ve read that seems to be the consensus of the middle-of-the-road commentariat on this.

  2. Robert Merkel

    One obvious lesson from Venezuela is that sooner or later, if huge levels of inequality persist across a broad enough sector of the population, those getting the wrong end of the stick will attempt to take a larger slice of the pie for themselves.

    We might perhaps look to Europe and suggest that its leaders aren’t thinking long and hard enough about the consequences should the extraordinary levels of unemployment persist.

  3. Paul Norton

    A point to remember about Venezuela, and the other Latin American countries in which the Left has been winning elections in recent years, is the salience of the division betwen the ethnic Spanish populations in those countries that have generally been economically and politically privileged, and other ethnic groups (notably the indigenous and mixed indigenous-Spanish) that have historically been disadvantaged and that have been an important support base for leaders such as Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

  4. Hoa Minh Truong

    Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, an out of date of Karl Marx movement. In historic record, after so called October 1917 Revolution in Russia, the world being disaster ever with 100 million deaths and more than billion people are still losing freedom in China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba.
    While an Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden condemned as the terrorist’s mastermind after September 11, 2001 with more than 3 thousand victims in US, but Karl Marx who was master of 100 million killed around the world, however his name to be honored as great man. Likely Mao Tse Tung killed 65 million people, but the democratic country’s leaders often pay the respect when they come to China. The world has went wrong sometimes.
    Mr. Hugo Chavez failed to apply the communist way in Venezuela as Russia, Cambodia, China, Vietnam…because its country has the strong fundamental democracy with multiple party, therefore he set up a half dictatorial regime with army, police tool those frighten people in 14 years, then when he has deceased, there were so much people cry as Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Mao Tse Tung, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh…died, it is the crying epidemic in the most communist country. His funeral likes the most communist leader, body to be embalmed and stored into a security place, the cost of mummified body doesn’t cheap, actually the Venezuela people have to be burdened by the maintain body for ever.
    Mr. Hugo Chavez is friends of the dictators as Fidel Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad….during 14 years in power, he wanted to revive the communist movement, although it has dead since Soviet Union, Eastern Europe communist bloc collapsed. So Mr. Hugo Chavez to be a lonely communist leader in South America, but he often created the hatred to the democratic country, actually US.
    An old China ideologist said:” a doctor applies wrong medicine, one patient died-A leader gets wrong policy, a generation killed-a teacher instructs wrongly to student, many generation harmed”.
    So president Hugo Chavez seized the power 14 years, his wrong concern that could harm a generation of Venezuela people. His death could be better for people of its country and there is no more a crazy leader in the world with big mouth and often showing off the hatred, to fight against the capitalist without reason. Mr. Hugo Chavez who lives in the 21st century, but his dream being back to the year of 19 century, a time Karl Marx lived and hated the rich people, but Marx got the living support by a rich man, Friedrich Engels in England, Marx is a dishonest, so the most communist are the same. They just want to use the money, technology, or the other from the democratic country while the low tide of revolution, the waiting for the high tide, communist will kill all. The communist strategy is:”taken a steep temporarily then prepare toward 4 steeps”. A China lesson to be learned for US Presidents since Nixon, China communist has never considered US and Western state as friend, but they have use free market, technology to strengthen, now China has starting to attack the world, a post cold war is occurring, it is not over yet. Communist couldn’t be trusted ever.

  5. Katz

    Chavez infuriated the Right because he stared down a CIA-inspired coup and won legitimate majorities in a series of elections. This behaviour doesn’t compute in RightWorld.

    It’ll be interesting to see how much Chavismo will outlive Chavez.

  6. dylwah

    Yeah that defensiveness was a sight to behold. When I was a kid upstarts like Chavez had a very limited lifespan, then the attempted coup happened in ’02 and it seemed such a farce. I’m still waiting to see if US acceptance of Chavez, Morales and Lulu etc represent a change of tack or a WOT enforced pause in BAU.

    I know that Chavez did a lot of good and stupid things, but my favourite was kicking the Vesty group off their pastoral leases in the first couple of years.

    Soon after the farce that was the 02 coup attempt I was climbing plastic with some Venezuelans (mostly euro) and Salvadorans (indig) and the split Paul N referred to became very apparent.

  7. Peter Murphy

    Hoa: all the talk about Chávez being a “Communist” misses the point. He never got the country into bureaucratic schelrosis; things always remained decentralized. Something like the Communal Councils would have been unimaginable under Brezhnev.

    Moreover, the man kept having election after election and winning – elections that were seen as fair by people like Jimmy Carter. There’s no Communist state that could say the same.

    Ai ?ó ch? vi ph?m các quy ??nh c?a “ba ?o?n v?n”.

  8. Peter Murphy

    Hoa’s comment at 5 also reminds me of this fine, fine epitaph to the man. Contains irony.

  9. jules

    Since I only realised you were back yesterday I missed this post on Chavez. Hopefully better late than never, here’s an AP take on Chavez that says so much more than the words are sposed to say:

    Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.

    Its an epitaph to be proud of tho.