Hugo Chávez: reluctant revolutionary

Julia Buxton tracks a political journey leftwards – from admirer of Tony Blair to ‘fiery populist’ and champion of the Venezuelan poor.

When Hugo Chávez Frias was elected to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998, he was not the ‘fiery populist’ whose death from cancer was announced on 5 March 2013. 14 years ago his vision was of a social democracy with a welfare safety net funded by such ‘revolutionary’ initiatives as income tax. He lauded Tony Blair as a role model and talked of finding a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism in Venezuela. His ideological journey leftward and to Twenty First Socialism was driven by the ferocious resistance his initially modest ambitions faced.

Inspirational thinkers

Back in 1998 Chávez was a politically inexperienced former lieutenant colonel. He converted to the ballot box after a coup attempt that he led against the neoliberal government, led by President Carlos Andrés Pérez, failed in 1992.

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His actions were influenced by the traditional view of the Latin American military that it was their role to save the nation from venal civilian politicians. But he drew from progressive schools of thought as represented by General Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, rather than the vicious authoritarianisms of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Underdevelopment and exploitation were understood by Chavez as the greatest threat to the Venezuelan Republic, as envisioned by its 19th century independence leader Simon Bolvar.

Chávez came from a modest background; both of his parents were school teachers in the provincial state of Barinas. The military provided Chávez with a solid professional career, but he was appalled by the graft and corruption of the upper echelons appointed by the Venezuelan Congress.

Along with a group of likeminded officers he formed the covert Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 in 1982, members upholding Simon Bolívar’s 1805 pledge to break the chains of oppression.1 The trigger for MBR-200s subsequent coup attempt was events in February 1989 when the security sector was deployed to suppress popular protests against neoliberal measures. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in what Chavez cited in 2010 as the spark that lit the Bolivarian Revolution.2

He thrived in the publicity generated by being an audacious critic of the Bush administration and international capitalism

Chávez and his MBR-200 peers emerged from prison intent on building a new Fifth Republic in alliance with the civilian left. His success in the 1998 presidential election was stunning. His victory gave a different class, races, networks and interests control of a state that had been monopolised by the Social and Christian Democrat parties (AD and COPEI) since democratisation in 1958.

Although Chávez is today remembered as a champion of the poor in what was once one of the most unequal countries in the world, his first term focused on constitutional reform. But these early efforts to build a social democracy faced strong resistance from elite networks in the union movement, business sector, Roman Catholic church and private sector media, which had enjoyed privileged access to the state and its oil resources through their ties to AD and COPEI.

Social justice revolution

It was his brief overthrow in an opposition led coup in 2002 that transformed Chávez’s priorities and style. Owing his political survival to the tens of thousands of barrio (shanty town) residents that protested his removal, Chávez refocused the revolution on social justice. The rise in the international oil price after 2004 enabled the government to fund social policy initiatives such as popular clinics, employment training, credit provision and school and housing construction. These halved the number of households living in poverty while building a loyal following for Chávez.

Mourning Chávez

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The 2002 coup attempt also catalysed a more pro-active foreign and energy policy, as the Chávez government sought to insulate itself from US hostility by building new geostrategic alliances around its oil economy. Iran, China and Russia became important partners, as did the raft of left of center presidents elected to power in Latin America during the Pink Tide of the 2000s. Chávez placed himself at the head of new regional initiatives intended to push back the influence of the International Monetary Fund and US influence in Latin America. He rode a wave of popular hostility to neoliberalism, free trade agreements and the US ‘war on terror’, thriving in the publicity generated by being an audacious critic of the Bush administration and international capitalism. In 2006 he was re-elected on a platform of building Twenty First Century socialism, with his last six years in office focused on consolidating the role of the state in the economy.

Chávez transformed the politics of Venezuela and the outlook of the region, a legacy that will be contested but enduring

Chávez held together diverse factions and interests within the ‘Chavista’ movement of his supporters. His charisma and direct style appeared antiquated, if not despotic to critics, but it generated a strong popular commitment to the figure of the president. Chávez was the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution and it was the Chavistas dependence on his personality that forced him to re-contest the presidency in October 2012 despite the frailty caused by his June 2011 cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment. Once Chávez had victory under his belt, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were able to focus on the transition to a once unthinkable post Chávez era. As his party strategised, Chávez spent his last weeks in the arms of his family. Chávez transformed the politics of Venezuela and the outlook of the region, a legacy that will be contested but enduring.

Dr Julia Buxton is Head of International Relations and Security Studies (IRSS), Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.

  1. Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator p 40
  2. Correo del Orinoco.