While a defeat would for Chavez would be a setback for the left and perhaps ignite a ‘carnival of reaction’ across the continent, the more fundamental questions would be perhaps be posed by a Chavez victory. If he were to win and serve a full term, he would have spent 20 years as Venezuelan President, much of that time with big legislative majorities and with the benefit of historically high oil prices (something like 80% of Venezuelan export revenue comes from oil). There is little doubt that Venezuelan society will have made progress in that period, but enough progress to justify the uncritical praise heaped on Chavez by sections of the Left?
Some were perhaps given a moment’s pause by Chavez’s fairly disgraceful attitude to events in Libya, where he parroted various infamies against the Libyan rebels and defended Gaddafi to the hilt. He seems intent on pursuing the same course in the Syrian case, recently providing the regime with a shipment of oil. While consistent anti-imperialism is to be applauded, Chavez seems incapable of reconciling this commitment with recognition of the legitimate desire for an end to authoritarianism that is causing the convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa.
Hugo Chavez has been and remains a figurehead and an inspiration for anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists across Latin America and the world. Should he head off the latest challenge to his government from a Venezuelan opposition for which no one on the Left should feel the slightest sympathy, then it is incumbent upon those who favour socialist change in Venezuela and beyond to build up the pressure for a fundamental and irreversible transformation of Venezuelan society. While Chavez and his government have the opportunity to play a role in that transformation, its ultimate success lies in forces beyond him and his regime, in the poor and working class of Venezuela. Only their self-activity and self-emancipation can provide the change Venezuela needs.
It has long seemed to me that the major problem with Hugo Chavez is that he is full of shit. Chavez tapped into deep desires within Venezuelan society for massive social change and has provided a very small amount of that. But Chavez’s goal isn’t really to improve the life of the average Venezuelan. It’s to be the next Castro, yelling at the United States. Thus, Chavez will support any leader who thumbs his nose at the U.S., no matter how horrible. Sometimes these very public actions can have good results on the ground–paying for medical care for Central Americans while pointing out what the U.S. could do for hemispheric medical care for instance. But governance under Chavez in Venezuela has been bad. Crime has skyrocketed, jobs have not come, and the entire regime exists on the basis of exporting oil. It’s hardly easy for a developing world nation to diversify its economy, but Chavez could have been much more serious about starting new industries and providing a better life for his people.
What Hugo Chavez has never understood is that socialism is not sticking one to the United States. It’s picking up the trash, creating jobs, emancipating people from poverty and disfranchisement. There’s a foreign policy side to that. But Chavez is in this for Chavez, not the Venezuelan people.
……To be clear, I am not at all convinced Hugo Chavez really believes in socialism. I am fully convinced he believes in Chavezism. But is he actually a socialist? That’s an open question in my mind.