Every now and then a giant arrives in our midst, one that etches a permanent impression on the course of history. One such figure was El commandante Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the death of whom has left a gaping hole in Venezuela’s future and a question mark for revolutionary movements worldwide.
Revolutionaries all over the world looked up to Hugo Chavez for leading socialism in the 21st century. And Chavez had taken up the task with the power and grace befitting a real leader. His election to president’s office four times is a testimony to his popularity in his country and the international mourning in the wake of his death points to how iconic Chavez had become in his 15 years of leadership.
THE GIANT AWAKENS
Born in a rural town of Sabaneta in plains of western Venezuela, Chavez was educated in public schools and entered the Venezuelan Military Academy in 1971 as an army cadet.
Rising steadily among army ranks, Chavez soon became a paratrooper and military-academy history teacher. Here he trained and led a group of dissident soldiers for a coup against the then Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez. The coup failed and Chavez was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He was pardoned, however, after 2 years by the new president. He was then elected to presidency in the 1998 elections as the leader of the Fifth Republic Movement. Dedicated to a socialist ideology, he implemented reforms in Venezuela under what became internationally known as the Bolivarian Revolution. These reforms included a new constitution, participatory democratic councils, the nationalisation of several industries, increased government funding on health care and education, and reductions in poverty. He used rich Venezuelan oil reserves for this purpose and won the ever-increasing support from the poor masses of his country.
Internationally, he was a vocal critic of the American imperialism, having famously defended his stance by saying, “I hereby accuse the North American empire of being the biggest menace to our planet.” His government forged an alliance with the socialist governments of Cuba under Fidel Castro and later Raul Castro, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Because of his international alliances and his vocal criticism of capitalism (Chavez once said, “I am convinced that the way to build a new and better world is not capitalism. Capitalism leads us straight to hell”), his presidency is associated with what is called the Pink Tide of Latin America.
He was a key figure in setting up the pan-regional Union of South American Nations, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the Bank of the South, and the regional television network TeleSur.
As with all exceptional leaders, Chavez was not free from controversy. During his second term, senior military officials, media men and members of his own government attempted a CIA-backed coup. Mass rallies were held in Caracas against the Bolivarian government and violence reportedly broke out between pro- and anti-Chavez activists. Gun shots were fired, and twenty people were killed and over 110 were wounded. Using civil unrest as an opportunity, the plotters gained significant power in pressuring Chavez to step down. Chavez agreed and was transferred by army escort to La Orchila. However, when offered a chance to flee, Chavez resolutely refused to resign as the president of the country, having famously said, “I am a President held prisoner, that I haven’t resigned and I will not resign.”
Nonetheless, the wealthy business-leader Pedro Carmona declared himself president of an interim government. Carmona abolished the 1999 constitution and appointed a small governing committee to run the country. Protests in support of Chávez along with insufficient support for Carmona’s regime, led to Carmona’s resignation and Chávez returned to power on 14 April.
Chavez learned from this experience and attempted to moderate his approach. He implemented a new economic team that was more centrist and reinstated the old board of directors and managers of the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), whose replacement was believed to be one of the reasons for the coup. At the same time, the Bolivarian government also began to prepare for a US invasion or future uprisings. At least 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and several helicopters were purchased from Russia, as well as a number of Super Tucano light attack planes from Brazil were expected to be bought. However, the deal collapsed at the last minute because it was feared that the US would not provide essential components for the planes. Chavez claimed it was US pressure that had prevented Brazil from selling to Venezuela. Troop numbers were also increased. It was announced in 2005 that the government intented to increase the number of military reserves from 50,000 to 2,000,000.
After winning the presidency for the fourth time late in 2012, El Presidente fell ill which prevented him from taking oath as the president. News reports and official government sources claimed that he had cancer, although the nature of his disease was not disclosed. Chavez breathed his last in the early hours of March 6. In his absence, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will assume the presidency until an election is held within 30 days
When news of his death broke, the government of Cuba declared three days of national mourning. In a statement read out on state television, it said Chavez had “stood by Fidel [Castro] like a true son.”
In Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a close friend, suspended all activities after the death was announced.
Peru’s Congress held a minute of silence in his honour while Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said he was leaving immediately for Caracas.
The Ecuadorian government said it felt the loss as its own, and hoped its neighbours could carry on Chavez’s revolution.
Thousands of Chavez supporters gathered outside government offices and chanted “We are all Chavez!”
As the International Left mourns, there is a daunting question of who will fill the massive void left by Hugo Chavez. Chavez was not just a president, he was the flag-bearer of a blatant challenge to imperialism and capitalism and he was a living proof that socialism had not died with the collapse of the Soviet empire. His last tweet, “Until victory always! We’ll live and we’ll win!” may have referred to his hope in fighting cancer but it represents so much more. It calls to the brave spirits within all of us to continue to struggle against forces that threaten to annihilate our existence, it calls to the revolutionaries to remain dedicated to the cause of fighting oppression. While the world grapples with the loss, one cannot, then, help but join the chants, “We are all Chavez.”