On February 2nd, Hugo Chavez celebrated 10 years as president of Venezuela. Less than two weeks later, Venezuelans voted 54 percent to 46 percent, allowing him to run for the leading post indefinitely. “This is is historic day,” Chavez told a crowd in Caracas.
Chavez, a self-styled socialist, first came into the spotlight in 1992 after he launched a botched coup. He was elected in December of 1998 with a populist program: one which over the past ten years has become in some regards bolder. In April of 2002, a U.S. condoned coup was launched against Chavez. Due largely to his widespread support, both in the military and amongst the masses, it was unsuccessful. Since then, he has become one the most vocal and widely broadcasted critics of U.S. foreign policy.
During the past ten years, Chavez’s leadership has coincided with marked improvements in Venezuelan society, particularly in the areas of food security, literacy and community control. These improvements have come largely at the expense of imperialism: both the First World and its lackeys inside Venezuela. This latter group makes up Chavez’s greatest domestic opposition.
Outside of Venezuela, Chavez has formed close ties with other South American leaders towards the end of decreasing U.S. domination in the region. At one point he called Columbia, the region’s largest recipient of U.S. military aid, the “Israel of Latin America.” Around the world, Chavez has made high-profile arms deals with Russia and signed social and economic development contracts with Iran. Responding to the latest attack on Gaza, Venezuela along with Bolivia broke official diplomatic ties with Israel and expelled their ambassadors.
Speaking after his most recent victory, Chavez stated that Venezuelans voted “for socialism [and] for revolution.” A continuation of the “Socialism in the 21st Century” theme that Chavez has increasingly stressed, how exactly such rhetoric will translate into the future remains unclear.
“Revolution” and “socialism” connotate change. Revolution has been called the overthrow of one class by another. Both imply the remaking of society into one with inequality and division, without classes or a state. Thus, when Chavez says “revolution” and “socialism” to describe his leadership and Venezuelan society, our appraisal of these claims should be based on the standard of ‘what direction society is moving.’ Our analysis is also global. The struggle inside Venezuela should be considered in the context of the overall global struggle against imperialism and for a new world.
There are criticisms of Chavez to be made. Internationally, following his referendum victory, Chavez hinted at a rapprochement with the United States. Barack Obama, during his campaign, included Chavez in this list of controversial leaders whom he would “sit down with.” Additionally, while forming an alliance with Russia may to some degree counter U.S. power globally, such is hardly a revolutionary strategy for the world’s oppressed masses. More disturbing, Chavez has stated that “guerrilla war is history;” a slap to the face for those directly resisting imperialism, and beating it, through guerrilla warfare.
Chavez has also been criticized for his top down approach. Such criticism is premature, especially from those outside of Venezuelan society. Authoritarianism on the part of the Chavez administration has obviously been not all bad. Notably, it has occurred in conjunction with the mass mobilization of Venezuela’s poorest and has helped Venezuelan society make leaped and bounds. As many Venezuelans think, Venezuela needs ten more years of Chavez for “Socialism in the 21st Century” to be become a reality. Moreover, such ‘leftist’ criticisms coming from Westerns, regardless of their intention, mirror and buttress those coming from the U.S. State Department. Insofar as authoritarianism has limitations and its existence will leave a mark on Venezuelan society, it is something the the Venezuelan masses will eventually have to deal with.
In all, Chavez is a nebulous figure. It is clear that his administration is a major pole in global anti-imperialism, though his opposition is at times wavering. Inside Venezuela he has presided over clear social transformation while the methods and manners by which this has been accomplished have their own flaws and are simultaneously laying the foundations for the creation of new divisions. In the end however, the fate of Venezuela- and the world- lies not with leaders but with the masses themselves. Theirs is a struggle that is far from over. Now that Chavez has been given the opportunity to lead the country indefinitely, the question remains what his relation to this continuing struggle will be.