Image Credit: Jed Brandt, Big Character Media
I never celebrated President’s Day— until 2006, that is. That was the year that I realized that not all presidents preside over a government set on promoting and expanding a racist, patriarchal, homophobic, classist and imperialist system. That was the year that I realized that a handful of presidents actually stood for justice and liberation. The fact that none of those presidents were from the United States shouldn’t stop me from them and their work.
That year, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was one of the three presidents I decided to give thanks for.
Earlier that year, I had the opportunity to attend the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela as a part of a delegation of labor and community organizers from Grassroots Global Justice. The five-day Forum culminated in a hour-long speech by the Venezuelan President. He started by apologizing that his remarks would be short because he was battling a cold. He, then, launched into a thoughtful, provoking and inspiring speech in which he implored those present to seize the moment. Where previous generations of revolutionaries had the luxury of thinking in terms of centuries, he warned that because of the ecological crisis we had only years in which to dismantle a system which threatened to poison the earth’s capacity to support human life. That urgency still drives much of my work to this day. The speech was amazing.
Just as it seemed like his remarks were coming to an end, Chávez broke out in song. The man had an amazing singing voice, cold and all! Tens of thousands of people flowed out of the stadium that night— reinvigorated, bellowing the popular chant of the Bolivarian revolution: Alerta! Altera! Alerta que camina! La espalda de Bolívar por América Latina!
While in Venezuela, the delegation from Grassroots Global Justice toured the newly created missions which to this day bring education, health care and food to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who had been cast away by generations of Venezuela’s ruling oligarchs. We met with workers in the newly created cooperatives, many of them women who spoke passionately about how the world was opening up to them, how they were discovering their own power as they participated in building a new nation. We met the residents of the neighborhoods in 2002 who had surged from their homes to the front of the Milaflores presidential palace to demand that their president, the man that they had voted for, be restored to power. The people stood up to the leaders of the coup and won over large sections of the military. Chávez had inspired that level of devotion.
Different cultures have different words for that kind of person: solid, salt of the earth, mensch, good people, brotha. I never had the chance to meet him, but to me, Hugo Chávez seemed to be a man of the people. Watching broadcasts of his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, and seeing him listen to the concerns of the people, challenging government officials who he implored to do better and conducting full-on political education sessions on national television was magic. It was something that I had only ever seen in Cuba. Chávez clearly reveled in being with his people. The man certainly had his contradictions like all of us, and those contradictions shaped how he governed. What comes next will surely test the degree to which leadership and revolutionary unity has been institutionalized. The Bolivarian revolution and the Venezuelan people will have an enormous task filling the void left by this man who drove a liberatory project forward based on individual charisma and personality as much as by organization and ideology. But whatever the contradictions, Chávez sparked a socialist revival that few could have imagined fifteen years ago.
Later in 2006, I was shocked, like so many people, when in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Chávez referred to then-President George W. Bush as “the devil.” I was shocked— not because it was inappropriate. On the contrary, I was shocked because growing up in the United States, I had never experienced a political leader, much less a president, defiantly standing up and speaking dangerous truths. “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today.” Unflinching and unapologetic, winking to the delegates with his kinky hair that he proudly noted was a mark of his African ancestory— and that his critics lambasted— he stood and gave voice to what so many people believed, telling the truth about the savagery of U.S. imperialism. I was born too late to see Malcolm X speak, but I couldn’t help but think this is what it feels like to have someone whose words made me proud, gave me courage.
As word came out about Chávez’ passing, I received a flurry of text messages from comrades across the country. All of them spoke to the sadness that I felt and continue to feel. As this night comes to a close, the sadness has grown. But that sadness has also been mixed with gratitude, and I want to say, “Gracias, commandante.”
The challenge for all of us is to make the world a better place than it was for those around us and for those who will come after. Today, as Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías transitions to join the ancestors, he has done himself proud, and he leaves all of us for the better. From his failed coup to his repeated electoral victories, he transformed generations of self-serving oil profits to bring millions of people out of poverty. He spoke to the centrality of popular participation in shaping the vision and the directions of the nation, going so far as to enshrine these ideas as the foundation of the country’s remarkable new Constitution. He extended aid to the brave people of Cuba. He launch a process that has picked up the dream of Símon Bolívar and in the process, helped to consolidate a multi-national counter-hegemonic pole. He got swallowed by the shark of U.S.-sponsored coups and emerged even more committed. And if all of that wasn’t enough, he re-kindled the revolutionary imagination of the global Left, calling for the reinvention of a socialism that breaks from the errors of 20th century socialist experiments without relinquishing the need to break from the insanity of capitalism. That is a legacy that won’t fade away any time soon.
Most of the media will continue to get the story wrong, but we know the truth. We lost a good one today. Through it all, President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías gave us permission us to dream and gave us reason to believe. He helped us see that we deserve better than what we’ve got, that everyone deserves better. We haven’t accomplished all of what it is that he set out to achieve— por ahora, but, I realize the kind of president I want to celebrate every February.
We’ve got our work cut out for us as we carry forward the struggle for justice and liberation, and now we’ll have to do that without the physical presence of a courageous, inspiring and talented militant, but his example will always be with us because Uh! Ah! Chávez no se va!
Uh, ah, Chavez no se va: A reflection by amalia deloney
Originally posted at the Center for Media Justice
Earlier today Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frias passed away, following a battle with cancer.
Within minutes (literally) hundreds of news stories hit the Internet, announcing his death. Most used inflammatory language like “ending 14 years of tumultuous rule,“ or “leaving behind a political crisis” or my favorite “the socialist leader who assailed U.S. influence in Latin America in his campaign against Capitalism.” Is there a better way to be remembered? Please let someone say that about me!
Of course I don’t know Chávez personally. And, I also understand that like most people—and politicians—he was complex, contradictory and flawed. But that’s the human experience. What I do know is that for many Latin Americans (myself included) he was a contemporary and constant reminder that América is not synonymous with the U.S. It was refreshing. It was bold. And his declaration that Latin America did not have to follow Washington’s lead broke with nearly a century of U.S ideology that sought to cast the entire Western Hemisphere in the United States’ image.
This wasn’t just melodrama—though it was dramatic—it was real! This was especially true for those of us who grew up with—or were displaced from Latin America due to–neo-liberal austerity measures, or thinly veiled foreign policy masquerading as humanitarian aid (Peace Corps, cough cough). Unlike USAID, the World Bank or the IMF, Chávez spread a message that there were alternatives to development driven by the examples & prescriptions of the United States.
There’s no doubt that his “Bolìvarian revolution” was far from perfect, but it was still powerful. Literacy courses, health clinics and social programs staffed by thousands of Cuban teachers, nurses and doctors were part of this legacy too. The impact was real—poverty rates dropped, health indicators improved, and many of Venezuela’s poor were working for the expanding state sector.
I saw this first hand when I was in Venezuela for the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students—a huge conference that drew 15,000 participants from over 40 different countries. In addition to attending workshops and demonstrations, delegates toured neighborhoods in Caracas, and went on trips to the various provinces. During these tours, local Venezuelan citizens explained some of the new social programs that had been instituted during the revolution—and showed the progress that had been made in their own communities with regard to education and literacy, medical care and housing.
The Festival concluded with a two-day-long anti-imperialist tribunal where representatives from countries that had been victims of U.S. imperialism presented testimony and evidence of the crimes committed against them by the U.S. government. Chávez wasn’t perfect, but he was charismatic and vocal—and he inspired the possibility of a new way, or what he called “the third way.”
I’m obviously not in Venezuela—but I’ll be thinking of the Venezuelan people–particularly during this transition–hoping that the loss of Chávez doesn’t create the entry point the U.S. needs to ramp up the destabilization programs they’d been forced to keep on the back burner.
In closing I’ll leave you with 2 quotes to reflect on, and one question…
“[Chavez was someone] who gave all his life for the liberation of the Venezuelan people … of all the anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists of the world.” - Evo Morales, President of Bolivia
“Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America, and an obstacle to progress in the region, … “I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.” -U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee
Who would you rather build with?
In 2004, I remember the euphoria, in the wee hours of the morning, of walking through the streets of Caracas in 2004 to the Presidential Palace in Miraflores to watch in front of thousands, Hugo Chavez address the crowd with a victory speech, he had beaten the recall, overwhelmingly.
I was on an observer delegation sponsored by the Venezuelan Information Office, and it was my second trip, I was in love with the Bolivarian Process. I reveled in watching the formation of freewheeling democracy, committed to redistributing oil wealth, promoting grassroots democracy, and providing inclusion for all.
There are so many parts of the early years of the Process that struck me. Every single house had a copy of the little red Constitution, and there must have been one million study groups that collectively poured over each sentence of it; that is popular education on an unrivaled scale. I had meetings with neighborhood groups and leaders who supported the process and were Chavistas, yet also asserted their independence from Chavez. I witnessed conversations among hard-core Chavistas who in 2004, were already thinking about who might be their candidate, should Chavez lose the recall. I marveled at the virtual perfect cleft in the country, there was a real and clear class war. If you were poor, you were Chavista, if you had money, you were in opposition, there was no room in the middle. Most importantly, I saw how no one was deceived by commercial media, where every outlet was critical of the government every single day, in a way that would have made Fox News actually seem fair and balanced. It also seemed that five years into the Process, very little material progress in the lives of Venezuelans had actually happened, but that it did not matter, because the level of organization and belief was so high, that people were willing to take that leap of faith, and continue to support the government.
Many tributes will speak of the Missiones supporting literacy, giving Venezuelans a chance to finish high school, learn a new trade, buy basic goods and receive neighborhood based health services. Others can write more eloquently than I of the space Chavez opened up that inspired democratic left governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and many other places. Equally fascinating to me was the political nuance, a country that was able to call out the United States’ foreign policy time and again, withstand a Coup aided and abetted by a US Government, and yet still be a major exporter of oil to the United States.
Through four visits to Venezuela I also learned about the inadequacy of our civil society institutions. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center supported the old school oil workers unions over the more democratic Chavista unions and revisited their typical Cold War dogma. Obviously, I re-learned the lesson, that in a class war, if the Northern press only stays in part of the city and speaks with those who share their class status, only one side of the story gets covered. I remembered, that like with Cuba, many of us who are Leftists are willing to holster a lot of our criticism (even when it is unhealthy) to do so, to support charismatic leaders uncritically, even when they have proven megalomaniacal tendencies.
My intention is not to stir up the bee’s nest of what is or is not demagoguery. I look forward, over beers with my peers to discussing whether supporting Ahmadenijad and changing the time zones by 30 minutes is appropriate behavior or not. But for now, I see Chavez’ death as raising the following fundamental questions for us, as organizers here in the United States.
• For those of us who believe in radical democracy and consensus, how do we think about scale and scope of social change? Chavez first gained notoriety in a coup attempt, and his tendencies were always much more of the charismatic leader rather than the freewheeling democrat. What can we learn from that success?
• Chavez and Venezuela effectively withstood the capital strike, a coup and a general strike of the oil industry. Not only was it charismatic leadership but it was also a function of mass popular education, the constitutional study groups. The Populists in the United States were able to put 40,000 traveling lecturers on the road. How do we accomplish mass popular education at scale in our movements, because without it, the media and money will never let us succeed?
• As our movements and organizations grow, how do we prevent dictatorial tendencies and hold leaders accountable without losing the organizational characteristics that make them and our organizations great? We have seen this tendency in both small and large movements alike, it is one of the factors that contributed to ACORN’s downfall, and obviously hampered both the Cuban Revolution and decades in and the end of Chavez’ time.
• For those of us who believe fundamentally in nonviolence, what is the role of armed resistance and using undemocratic means (such as a coup) to more democratic nonviolent measures such as civil resistance? At what point does resistance cease to become peaceful or nonviolent, and does the means of resistance influence the ends? While this may be an academic exercise here in the US, as we are so far away from any kind of actually contest for power, it is important to reflect on how we are structuring our organizations and movement.
• Finally, most of the recent left takeovers in Latin America, have had a strong electoral component. Yet, our electoral work as a loose-knit movement is paltry. When we do engage in electoral work, there is often very little underlying ideology to our work. We can discuss how the 501c3 structure hampers our work, or the challenges of the United States winner-take-all system hampers our work, but frankly, we are pretty smart folks. Most importantly, what we should ask ourselves from the Venezuelan process is whether we can model a US version of Chavez’ path, bold political action (attempting to seize power in a coup), with an amazing political field operation (the Bolivarians won election after election, pretty handily). If we reflect on nothing else, this action must be our legacy to Hugo Chavez.