“Humanity Has Lost a Titan”: Interview with William I. Robinson on the Legacy of Hugo Chavez
The progressive cause in Latin America but also worldwide has lost one of its most visible leaders. How would you describe the political ideology professed by Hugo Chavez and his Venezuelan United Socialist Party?
Humanity has lost a titan with the passing of Hugo Chavez. Without doubt Chavez is the most important revolutionary leader to have emerged in Latin America – indeed, from the Global South – in at least a generation, if not in a century. When Chavez came to power in 1999 it was the heyday of neo-liberal hegemony in Latin America and around the world. Chavez’ election irked the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and raised eyebrows in the halls of power in Washington and elsewhere. But it was not until the April 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec, Canada, that the direction Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution would take became clear. Chavez was the only head of state among the 24 hemispheric leaders present at that meeting who refused to sign on to the declaration approving the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas that, if approved, would have created by 2005 a giant free trade zone from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. It was at that moment that neo-liberalism definitively lost its hegemony.
But Chavez not only rejected neo-liberalism. He put socialism back on the public agenda at a time when apologists for global capitalism were still claiming it was “the End of History” and when the defeatist left was insisting that we had to be “realistic” and “pragmatic,” to renounce anti-capitalism, and to limit ourselves to putting a “human face” on the capitalist system. Chavez called for a renewed democratic socialism – what he and the PUSV called “21st century socialism” – a socialism based on the protagonism and democratic control of the popular classes from below, as evinced in the 40,000 Communal Councils, the tens of thousands of worker cooperatives, and the thousands of public enterprises run by workers councils in Venezuela. It is apropos to recall these experiences in Venezuela take place at a time when the Greek and other European peoples are reeling under the austerity imposed by the brutal dictatorship of transnational finance capital.
In an era in which socialists in the west have embraced wholeheartedly the neoliberal project, on Chavez’s watch, the oil industry in Venezuela was nationalized, government spending increased substantially (up to 40% in 2012), and welfare projects were initiated on a massive scale. What challenges did Chavez have to overcome in order to accomplish these goals?
The anti-Chavista forces, Washington, and the international media are fond of saying that Chavez “polarized” Venezuela. But Venezuela was polarized long before Chavez came to power, with a tiny capitalist class and state elite and a sizable middle class on the one side – approximately some 30 percent of the Venezuelan population – and the impoverished majority on the other side. Above all Chavez reverted the country’s oil wealth to this majority. The re-nationalization of the oil industry allowed the Chavez government to redirect state resources towards this poor majority. The social achievements of the Bolivarian revolution are now well known: poverty was cut by more than half, from over 60 percent to some 25 percent of the population, and extreme poverty dropped from 25 percent to some seven percent; health and education became universally accessible; life expectancy rose from 74.5 to 79.5 years; unemployment dropped from 12 percent to 6 percent; hundreds of thousands of new homes have been constructed ; and so on.
But these achievements, and more generally, the effort to reorient the country’s resources to the poor majority, came at the cost of the enmity of the bourgeoisie and much of the middle classes, of Washington, and of the Latin American oligarchies and capitalist classes. The Chavista government faced ever more intense destabilization campaigns, including attempted coups, military and paramilitary plots, political conspiracies, disinformation and misinformation (of which much of the international press has been willing accomplices), employee strikes and economic sabotage, and so on. The country has faced a war of attrition that has taken a heavy toll.
Moreover, the drive to construct socialism has taken place within a capitalist global economy. Some 70 percent of the Venezuelan economy is still in private hands, including the financial system, and the country remains dependent on international oil companies and markets. The material power of national and transnational capital translates into continued political and ideological influence. The law of value and its logic is still very much operative in the economy.
The strategy has been to develop and state and cooperative sector to compete with private national and transnational capital; it has not been to replace the logic of accumulation with a social logic as much as it has been to develop a social logic in the state and cooperative sector alongside the logic of accumulation that remains operative for the economy as a whole. This has generated structural as well as political and ideological contradictions. With regard to the former, for instance, inflation has become a serious problem as has a black market in the currency. This is the challenge of 21st century socialism “in one country.”
Under Chavez, Venezuela had established very special relations with Cuba. Was the relationship mutually beneficial to both countries?
Chavez developed a close friendship with Fidel Castro and the two have worked closely together in confronting Washington’s political and economic domination in the region. Economic relations between the two countries on not based on the criteria of profitability and trade advantage but on solidarity and complementarity. Cuba receives Venezuelan oil in exchange for Cuba sending medical brigades and other forms of social assistance. Yet Chavez stated on numerous occasions that Venezuela is constructing its own model of socialism. Sure the relationship has been mutually beneficial, but more to the point, that relationship reflects the broader matter of international political and economic relations among socialist-oriented countries, or countries whose governments are seeking relations based on cooperation and solidarity rather than on competition.
Venezuela (together with Cuba) has played a leadership role in Latin America in forging a political union, economic integration, and an alternative regional cooperation and development model based on solidarity rather than profit and driven by member states rather than transnational corporations and such international financial agencies as the IMF and the World Bank. In 2004 Venezuela and Cuba set up the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA to promote integration and solidarity on the principle of solidarity not competition. Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several other countries have joined ALBA. While Venezuela has provided oil on concessionary terms through ALBA, it has, more importantly, promoted projects such as a regional bank and currency, regional public agricultural and industrial enterprises, and joint infrastructural, social, and communications programs. In December 2011 the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, held its inaugural summit in Caracas. The CELAC brings together every country in the hemisphere excluding the United States and Canada and is a direct political challenge to Washington’s historic domination in the region.
Beyond Latin America, Venezuela has diversified its international economic relations – China is becoming the major trading and investment partner – and promoted South-South cooperation. Venezuela has come out strongly in support of the Palestinian struggle and other such causes, and against U.S. intervention around the world, even when it has cost the country political capital and economic support internationally. In sum, Venezuela has pursued not a self-interested and opportunistic foreign policy such as that of the former Soviet Union but one based on what would be true socialist principles of solidarity and cooperation.
Socialism in Latin America is on an upwards spiral since the late 2000s. What explains its rise at this particular historical juncture?
It is not difficult to understand the rise of socialism, or certainly, the spiral of anti-capitalism. In the wake of the 1970s crisis of world capitalism the bourgeoisie in the centers of the system, together with state elites and organic intellectuals who serve that bourgeoisie, launched capitalist globalization and undertook a vast new round of “primitive accumulation” around the world, destabilizing hundreds of millions of people. One of the key vehicles for this new round of capitalist expansion was neo-liberalism, a program which has facilitated the transfer of resources from the poor and working classes everywhere to a new transnational capitalist class, especially transnational finance capital, and to emerging middle and professional strata enjoying the fruits of the new global capitalism. Very simply, global capitalism has thrown countless millions into misery and uncertainty. The system has demonstrated that it is a failure for a majority of humanity.
It is in this context that starting in the late 1990s resistance forces around the world began to coalesce into a critical anti-capitalist mass and the banner of “another world is possible” was raised. But what kind of a new world? It is in this context that the Bolivarian revolution and its worldwide impact must be understood. And it is in this context that the extraordinary vision, charisma, and foresightedness of Hugo Chavez must be appreciated. Venezuela under Chavez, much more than resistance to global capitalism, is an example that a new world truly can – and must – be created, once based on the principles and practices of democratic socialism, if not on the label.
Venezuela will hold presidential elections on April 14. Will the United Socialist Party manage to sustain the momentum without Chavez, especially since it is a well known fact that his party is fractured by intra-party rivalries?
The greatest danger to the Bolivarian revolution, in my view, has always come from within, from the “endogenous right,” or the “Chavista right-wing,” that is, from portions of the Chavista movement that wish to see in Venezuela a more mild social democratic project and also from bureaucratic state and party elites who are more interested in acquiring their own power, privilege, and authority, often through corruption, than in helping to develop the self-empowerment of the working and popular classes. Yes, there are intra-party rivalries but I think that in the larger political analysis these must be seen in light of the struggle to avoid a bureaucratic top-down hijacking of power-from-below.
Nicolas Maduro has been a leader of the radical left for several decades and comes from a trade-union background. The Chavista movement has rallied around his leadership and his candidacy. He has proven, since Chavez moved into a terminal state in December, that he is a capable leader and the Chavista mass base understands that its struggle to defend and to deepen its revolution is now tied to electoral support for Maduro’s candidacy in the upcoming vote.
William I Robinson is Professor of Sociology, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author among other books of Latin America and Global Capitalism (2008).