This article appears in the April edition of Labour Briefing. It is almost an impossible task to sum up the legacy of Hugo Chávez in 650 words, but that was the space which was available.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez passed away on March 5 at 4.25 pm local time. His death, though somewhat expected, came as a shock. In the following days millions took part in the funeral procession, waited many hours (in some cases days) to see him at his chapel of rest and then accompanied him to his final resting place next to the militant Caracas parish of 23 de Enero.
The descriptions of Venezuela after the death of Chavez by the world's mass media paint a picture of war zone crime levels, an authoritarian “regime” and a crumbling economy. The only conclussion one could draw is that millions of Venezuelans, are gripped by collective madness.
The truth however is very different. Hugo Chavez has presided over a period of a massive rise in the living standards of the poorest sections in society. Between 2004 and 2012, poverty was reduced by half and extreme poverty cut by 70% and its Gini coefficient of inequality is Latin America's lowest. Governments in advanced capitalist countries cut education spending and increase tuition fees, Venezuela has doubled the education budget from 3.4 to 7% of GDP, created 1.3 million new tuition free university places and erradicated illiteracy by teaching the basics of how to read and write to 1.5 million of its people. Venezuela has nationalised or renationalised key sectors of the economy (telecomms, steel, cement, etc). In Spain 350,000 families have seen their homes repossesed by the banks in two years, the Bolivarian government has built and handed over the same amount of homes to families in need, in most cases free of charge. Misión Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighbourhood) has brought primary preventative health care into the poorest areas of the country, with the help of Cuban doctors and nurses. These are just some of the social programs of the Bolivarian revolution affecting the overwhelming majority of the workers and the poor, and significant sections of those who described themselves as “middle class”.
There are however deeper reasons for the outpouring of grief and solidarity we witnessed. In Venezuela there is not just a progressive government carrying wide-ranging social reforms. There is also a revolution in course. Millions of working people, women, the youth, peasants and the poor in general have become politically aware and organised in the last 14 years. They have had to come out to defend the Bolivarian revolution against the constant attempts of the oligarchy and imperialism to smash it: during the coup in April 2002, the oil sabotage and bosses lock out of December 2002, the guarimba counter-revolutionary riots of 2004, etc.
Hugo Chavez played a key role in raising the political consciousness of those who had always been excluded from the “democratic” process. He proved to be responsive to pressure from below (in relation to nationalisation of occupied factories, introduction of elements of workers' control, etc) as well as pushing the process forward himself. In 2005 he said that the revolution had to go beyond capitalism and towards socialism. He also stood up to US meddling in the region and championed the cause of Latin American integration.
All of this created a very strong bond of loyalty between Chavez and the revolutionary masses, something which the mass media, constantly referring to caudillismo and populism, is unable to grasp.
The revolution has not been completed and faces a number of important challenges. The economy remains fundamentally capitalist and so is the state apparatus. It will now be down to those struggling for workers' control, the women and the poor in the communal councils, the peasants still fighting for agrarian reform and the revolutionary youth to complete the revolution towards socialism. There are of course, many criticisms which can and should be made, but for those of us struggling for a better world, a socialist world, the legacy of Chavez is overwhelmingly positive.