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Chavez leaves an unfinished revolution

The death of Hugo Chavez at the age of only 58 has robbed Venezuelans of a president who was the first political leader in the country’s history to use oil revenues to fund social programmes.

His fourth election victory in a row last autumn was achieved on a turnout of 81% of the 19 million Venezuelans registered to vote, which is in stark contrast to falling turnouts in Britain. Chavez was a real hate figure not only for the right everywhere, but also for the liberal press in Britain.  

Hugo ChavezThe Independent claimed that Chavez bribed people to vote for him by “spending heavily on public housing and bankrolling expanded social programmes”. Apparently, during the first quarter of 2012, the construction sector expanded by nearly 30% compared with the same three months of 2011.

Sitting here in the UK where Osborne is about to announce another package of deep spending cuts, you have to say: “Why can’t we have such bribes – we have oil and gas reserves too.”

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, and the corporations have been greedily eyeing this prize for years and hate Chavez for keeping it from them. Because of limited access to expertise, it has proved hard for the Venezuelan state oil corporation to improve oil facilities and infrastructure. The explosion at the Amuay refinery last August in which 42 people were killed underlined this.

It has not even begun exploiting its gas reserves, and with refining capacity limited, this energy-rich country struggles to ensure power supplies and affordable energy. Petrol prices are extremely low but only because of a state subsidy.

To afford extensive social programmes and universal health and welfare benefits, the MVR government pushed to all sorts of fixes and deals. It has had $42bn in loans from China over the last five years. Of the 640,000 barrels of oil a day that Venezuela exports to China, 200,000 of them service this debt.  

Chavez’s manoeuvring, however, made him an apologist for reactionaries like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia, party because those countries will make oil deals with Venezuela without demanding entry into the unregulated global market.

Venezuela is not immune to the problems of bureaucracy that afflict all attempts to build socialism centred not on popular ownership but on state control. Inflation is high and rising, and many state-owned industries are inefficient and corrupt.

But Venezuela is not some Stalinist state whatever liberal critics claim. The constitution has been reformed and there are popular committees with a real say. A recent poll showed that half the population of Venezuela agrees with the idea of building a socialist country, against 29% who opposed it.

Since Chavez became president in 1999, income inequality in Venezuela has been declining, and it has the fairest income distribution in Latin America. Government expenditure has risen 30% in real terms in the last year, whilst GDP increased by 5.4%.
Chavez has tried to follow a path that avoids putting the global corporations in control of his country’s assets, and to use them, however imperfectly, to improve life for the people.

That made him a thorn in the side not only of the right, but of so-called liberal media who hate trade unions, mock socialism, despise universal benefits and continually tell us such things are hopelessly out of date and unattainable. Chavez formed an alliance with leaders of other supporters of his Bolivarian Revolution project, notably Evo Morales of Bolivia and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. His anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal stance won him respect from people throughout the region.

As academic and author Oscar Guardiola-Rivera wrote today:

Like Bolívar, Chavez swore to break the chains binding Latin Americans to the will of the mighty. Within his lifetime, the ties of dependency and indirect empire have loosened. From the river Plate to the mouths of the Orinoco river, Latin America is no longer somebody else's backyard. That project of liberation has involved thousands of men and women pitched into one dramatic battle after another, like the coup d'état in 2002 or the confrontation with the US-proposed Free Trade Zone of the Americas. These were won, others were lost.

With the death of Chavez, who was once a tank commander who tried to seize power in a coup, Venezuela’s immediate future is full of dangers and pitfalls. Washington will pitch in resources – mostly covertly – to support the right-wing candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. The White House’s hatred for Chavez stretched to the point where president Obama’s statement did not even offer formal condolences to the dead leader’s family. Even William Hague, the British foreign secretary, managed that minimum of decent behaviour.

For all the dramatic changes in Venezuela under Chavez, the state remains capitalist and the army a powerful force. Big business is waiting for an opportunity to seize the revenues that have been redirected to the people in the form of social programmes. Chavez’s legacy is that he launched a revolutionary process with all its flaws and contradictions, one that on his death remains incomplete.

A World to Win editors
6 March 2013

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