Cancer has accomplished what the Venezuelan elites never could: the removal of Hugo Chavez from the presidency, and from life.
Within my lifetime only one other figure came to symbolize the struggle for freedom with the same potency, the same dignity, and that was Nelson Mandela.
Indeed, the Venezuela that Chavez was born into and the South Africa of apartheid where Mandela conducted his underground struggle for freedom were not so different.
True, in Venezuela there was no legal form of apartheid enshrined in the constitution. Nevertheless the contrast between an impoverished, dark-skinned majority, and the parasitical elite that fed off them, was a vivid and brutal one.
The Venezuelan capital of Caracas of the 1980s was a shimmering, resplendent monument to neoliberal Reaganomics. In the center of the city the pristine sleek skyscrapers of the business district lodged the cool, comfortable offices, boardrooms and penthouses of a wealthy elite that possessed all the social values of one of their beloved TV novellas—novellas reflecting the saccharine glamour of the lives of surgery enhanced, light-skinned Venezuelans, as they sunned themselves on European beaches or popped off on a private jet for weekend trips to the one area that provided them with the spiritual solace they so desperately craved: the salubrious shopping districts of downtown Miami.
On the other side of the looking glass, a vast army of indigenous poor would sweep down daily, from the barrios and from the hills, slipping into the houses and offices of the wealthy, there to cook and clean and do all the dirty and menial jobs upon which the vapid beautification of this preening elite was based. For Venezuela’s ruling class, the presence of those who washed the food from their plates, cleaned the shit from their toilets, and changed the sodden sheets of their beds inevitably felt … uncouth. A quiet embarrassment.
And so, the mass of indigenous workers grew adept in the one talent which their wealthy “patrons” prized above all else: a talent that is the unique providence of servitude—the ability to become invisible. They performed their tasks quietly and from behind the scenes. And when national maps were drawn up in this period they regularly omitted the poverty stricken streets of the barrios and the hills for, after all, who in their right mind would possibly want to visit there? Invisibility was ensured for an indigenous work force that had, quite literally, dropped off the map.
But on a cold February morning in 1989 all that would change. Following a traitorous reversal of policy and outright capitulation to the IMF on the part of then president Carlos Andres Perez, the cleaners and laborers awoke to discover a 100 percent hike in the cost of transport—yet another intensification of their shrieking poverty. The disbelief quickly converted to outrage as mass protests and riots broke out across the country. Those who worked discreetly and from behind the scenes now exploded in protest, their images emblazoned across the national consciousness as vehicles burned and crowds thronged. The ‘democratic’ government’s response was deathly simple. They turned their guns on the population, murdering more than a thousand people.
Despite the brutal nature of the police repression, something had changed irrevocably. The mass rebellion — or ‘Caracazo’ —meant that the dark-skinned majority were no longer invisible. It had furnished the basis for a social movement which, in 1998, would culminate in Chavez’s electoral triumph.
Chavez’s rise to power provides the apex of a process by which Venezuela’s indigenous majority step to the fore of political affairs through the creation of a vast network of grass roots organizations, and so begin to exert a level of genuine control over the way their lives play out. But the notion of having someone from this social class at the head of state was, to Venezuela’s most prosperous elements, nothing short of obscene.
In one way the fundamental disgust and loathing they evinced toward Chavez from the very beginning of his first term in 1998 is easy to comprehend. The presence in the corridors of power of a figure committed to fight for the rights of those who should be seen and not heard, who were better suited to serving meals or valet parking expensive cars; the presence of these people in the midst of politics was disrupting and distressing to the hardcore patricians who had been weaned on a diet of entitlement, deference and virulent racial snobbery.
Beyond this was the palpable and throbbing truth: Chavez’s political existence—his image teleported into their homes by the latest high-tech televisions, the large and colorful crowds his speeches drew— presented the elite with a vast mirror exhibiting in sharp technicolor the cruel and unworldly nature of their own parasitic existence.
How could they not despise him for that?
The pitch and tenor of their hatred quickly became murderous. Privately owned media channels publically and regularly called for Chavez’ assassination. In 2002 a Pinochet-style coup was mounted, organized by the business elites, its representatives in the media and the reactionary political class; Chavez was snatched from power and detained in an island base while the institutions of the democracy were dissolved by formal decree. Then something else happened. The people who had provided Chavez with his electoral mandate began to come from the hills and the barrios converging on the center in their hundreds of thousands, eventually compelling the release of Chavez, and forcing his reinstatement.
But the elites did not for one moment relax their campaign of hatred against Chavez. Throughout his presidency the mass media screamed about a Chavez “dictatorship.” The majority of the population responded by validating him through elections and referenda on 17 separate occasions; nearly always the victories took the form of electoral landslides. And Chavez himself never wavered in his commitment to Venezuela’s poor. Since his first victory in 1998 extreme poverty has dropped to almost a quarter and stands at 8.6%, and the number of households in poverty has been reduced by 39% in approximately the same period according to this study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In addition Chavez extended free health care and education to all Venezuelans.
Nevertheless, his record in power was less than perfect. Chavez’s support for genuine dictators like the late Colonel Gadhafi of Libya or Iran's Ahmadinejad was dubious, to say the least. Also Chavez was never able to adequately deal with the crime waves that plagued large portions of the country.
But these individual failings cannot detract from the glorious and emancipatory power of the social movement of the poor and the oppressed that swept Chavez to prominence.
A traveler from the United States was driving to Boca de Uchire with his girlfriend when they spied an old lady stood on the side of the road trying to hitch a lift. They picked her up and in the subsequent conversation she explained that she was headed to her class under the Mission Robinson where she was learning for the first time to read and write. She revealed that she was 76 years old, but she said, “I hope I can live to 150 years old, there are so many books I want to read before I die.”
This provides perhaps a sense of what Chavez meant to Venezuela, and why his loss feels so tragic.
Tony Mckenna writes about cultural and political issues from a left standpoint.