The New Colossus: Chavez and the Democratic Revolutionaries of Latin America

Last month saw the popular election to the presidential office of a bearded and bespectacled cleric. Perhaps an image of the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is what immediately comes to mind, with long trailing robes, jet-black turban and a meticulously trimmed beard. The election in question, however, was not as one’s initial reaction might lead one to think, in the Arab or Muslim world, but in the small Latin American Republic of Paraguay. The victory of Fernando Lugo, a Catholic Archbishop, to Paraguay’s highest office marks yet another victory for a diverse array of populist, leftist and so-called ‘pro-poor’ forces currently making waves throughout South America. Lugo interestingly considers himself a passionate advocate of the practice of ‘liberation theology,’ which stresses the crucial role of Christianity in alleviating the plight of the ‘tired, poor and huddled masses’, to paraphrase the19th century American poet Emma Lazarus.

Several other ‘ballot-box’ revolutions have gripped Latin America, bringing the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia (the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history), Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and a number of others, to power on a veritable tidal wave of popular support. The professed inspiration of this new generation of Latin American leaders is the near legendary figure of Simón Bolívar, a leading figure in the liberation of several South American territories from Spanish colonialism at the beginning of the 19th century. It is his words and deeds which imbue much of the rhetorical backbone into Chavez’s own much touted ‘Bolivarian Revolution’.

The fact that an ailing Fidel Castro officially announced his retirement in February of this year after some 47 years in power seems to reinforce a growing trend; one that marks an end of the ‘old guard’ of Latin American leaders who had pursued their ideological vision by revolutionary means and militant vanguardism in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, and which began with the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks first seized power, which went on to be partially emulated in the course of the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Zedong in 1949 and once more in the form of Castro and Che Guevara’s ascendance to power in the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when they ousted the authoritarian ally of the United States, General Batista. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War pretty much determined Cuba’s fate, since it could no longer rely on the large Soviet subsidies to which it had become accustomed; but Castro’s exit from the political dramatis personae of Latin America, nonetheless remains a watershed moment.

ding to the United Nations over one billion people inhabit slums in the cities of the South. Those whom pack the outskirts of cities such as Caracas, La Paz, Quito, Buenos Aires and Bogotá form part of this now global phenomenon. The residents of these slums along with a broad and often loosely gathered coalition of grassroots organizations form the gamut of the social and political base of this new generation of leaders.[i] No longer content with their lot, they’ve become tired of a life stymied by abject poverty and pauperism, while a handful of individuals in the highest echelons of government continue to amass astounding wealth through backhanders and corruption; treating the public coffers as if they were their very own personal piggybanks. The world-renown urban theorist Mike Davis in his important book, Planet of the Slums, has likened these slum-dwelling masses to a volcano that could explode at any moment unless something is done to assuage the social conditions under which they presently eke out a lamentable and utterly destitute existence.[ii] Fortunately the vast majority thus far remain content to engage in the democratic process and lever those politicians into power who claim to represent and speak on behalf of their interests.

A slew of commentators have suggested that as a result of some twisted work of fate, the Iraq War has at least in part, provided Latin America with some much needed breathing room from Washington’s ever watchful and often intrusive eye, and so the opportunity to reinvigorate and embolden the democratic grass roots movements within their respective societies, which had until recent decades been suppressed and dormant due to years military and oligarchic authoritarianism. The Middle East, above all, the Iraq War, has kept US officials preoccupied for the last 5 years and will most likely continue to do so for the time being; the next 100 years if Republican nominee John McCain’s vision for the future of American foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq is to be realized.

Another contributing factor is that the new generation of political leaders that have arrived on the scene who are fully cognizant of the fact that the most expedient way of seizing power is by means of numbers. With countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala on their way to recovery in the aftermath of years of brutalization at the hands of military dictatorship, civil war, and foreign interference, a rich welter of groups and movements have been able to flourish within a democratic framework and intend to use their numbers to make up for their lack of means. These disparate set of political parties, social and community groups have sought to take advantage of the new mass politics that has arrived on the scene, with a huge swathe of the population now demanding they be heard. Politics up to now had merely been a series of more or less continuous battles amongst the criollo elite, the white descendants of the Spanish colonialists, while the Indian and African populations were forced to look on as mere spectators while they fate was decided for them .[iii] The landed classes and mine owners traditionally presided over excluded populations of poor workers on large estates, small plots and in the mining towns.

Hugo Chavez, the current president of Venezuela, is one of the most interesting and flamboyant members of this new generation of Latin American leaders. Moreover, Venezuela is the largest producer of oil in Latin America and so can’t be ignored, whatever one’s opinion might be of the Venezuelan president. Six years prior to his presidential victory, Chavez, led a band of young military officers to stage a coup against the repressive government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. The coup failed and Chavez was subsequently jailed. He was however catapulted into the national spotlight and dubbed a hero by scores of Venezuelans who had participated in the riots that had rocked Caracas three years previously and which came to be known as El Caracazo. A year later Pérez was impeached and found guilty of embezzling some $200 million in government funds. Prior to his election Pérez had railed against both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and made stacks of promises to channel Venezuela’s massive oil wealth into projects that would benefit the 60% of his compatriots who live below the poverty line. In the course of his second term Pérez had enacted a series of ‘structural readjustments’ today known as the ‘Washington Consensus’. In exchange for the $4.5 billion loan the IMF had put on the table, price controls on basic necessities were lifted and subsidies were slashed. The measures enforced by the Pérez government were not only greatly resented but would leave scars. Those who had been worst hit by such measures would later go on to vote in droves for Chavez, since it was the ‘Washington Consensus’, which Chavez would claim amongst the foremost targets of his own brand of ‘socialism for the 21st century’.

Despite vehement opposition to his plans from an extremely powerful ten percent of the country’s criollo elite, who possess of the lion’s share of Venezuela’s wealth (10% of the Venezuelan population control 50% of the nation’s wealth), Chavez’s government has sought to better the dire conditions in which some 80% of the Venezuelan populace are forced to endure. In 2003 an extensive inventory of the impact of Chavez’s economic reforms was done by two prestigious consulting firms and produced some remarkable results. The poorest half of the country has seen their incomes increase by 130 per cent in real terms. Access to clean water has gone up from 79 per cent to 91 per cent. Access to medical care has also advanced by leaps and bounds. In 1998, prior to Chavez’s election, there were 1,628 primary care doctors in the country. Today, there are 19,571; ten times as many as had existed previously.[iv] The health budget since Chavez had taken office tripled.[v] Furthermore, 1.2 million illiterate adults have been taught to read and write and secondary education has been made available to 250,000 children whose social status had previously excluded them under the old system.

Many have voiced warranted concerns regarding the role of the military in public life and some of Chavez’s attempts to strengthen the hand of the executive vis-à-vis the other branches of government, thereby weakening the system of check and balances on executive power. These are certainly a cause for concern and should continue to be assiduously monitored.[vi] The new Venezuelan constitution which was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum sought to create a more direct relationship between the executive and the electorate, which has on the most superficial level been evinced by Chavez’s hosting a weekly television and radio program Hello President in which Venezuelans phone in from across the country to air their grievances to their larger than life president.

A point however that is often overlooked is that since his convincing electoral victory in 1998, Chavez has won a further two elections with an overwhelming majority in 2000 and more recently in December 2006. He also won by a considerable margin a recall referendum in August 2004 spearheaded by the opposition, which international observers from around the world, including the Carter Center declared unequivocally free and fair. Former President Jimmy Carter himself stated that the election was amongst the freest he had ever witnessed.[vii]

Perhaps most famously, and captured first-hand by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain in their documentary film, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, the opposition, with the support of both the Spanish and American governments, led by the then head of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, staged a military coup d’état with the complicity of the privately owned media, 95 per cent of which then belonged to the Venezuelan opposition. Chavez was kidnapped, but refused to resign. As millions flooded the streets of Caracas demanding their president be reinstated, the military lost their nerve and returned Chavez to the presidential palace of Miraflores.[viii] Almost none of the coup plotters were jailed, but they have continued their efforts unabated to bring the Chavez government to its knees in the form of strikes as well as more subterranean chicanery.

As the UK Independent’s Johann Hari has argued, Chavez faces an unenviable dilemma. A powerful, highly motivated and undemocratic minority outraged by the fact that their hitherto unquestioned position of power and privilege has been eroded have made it their unwavering ambition to topple the Chavez government. At the same time Chavez must avoid the steady slide into autocracy, so often paved with good intentions. There is no definitive answer to this balancing act which has been thrust upon him, only time will reveal whether Chavez in the longer term, will side with the democratic process which expedited his controversial rise to power. His respect for the results of the December 2007 referendum where he was only narrowly defeated, 51% to 49% in favor of the opposition, has been viewed as a positive sign. The referendum aimed at ending limits on presidential terms i.e. the number of times the president can run for re-election after two successive terms in office, halting the central bank’s autonomy and shortening the working week. Chavez respected the democratic will of the people and thereby reassured the overwhelming majority who never wish to return to the dark days of authoritarianism and arbitrary arrest which have blighted the history of Latin America throughout the course of the 20th century.

© Sadegh Kabeer

[i] Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Richard Gott, Verso, 2005, p272

[ii] Planet of the Slums, Mike Davis, Verso, 2006

[iii] Baseball’s Loss, Geoffrey Hawthorn, London Review of Books, 1 November 2007

[iv] Chavez must avoid the trap of dictatorship, Johann Hari, The Independent, 19 November 2007

[v] Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, Tariq Ali, Verso, 2006, p70

[vi] Venezuela: Hugo Chavez’s Revolution, Latin America Report No. 19,

[vii] Pirates of the Caribbean, Tariq Ali, p71

[viii] A Coup Countered, Maurice Lemoine, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2002

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