Who’s Afraid of Hugo Chávez? Race, Empire, and Chavismo’s Revolutionary Subjectivity

Lucas Koerner examines the US Empire's fixation with Chavismo.


What is it about Chávez and the national-popular movement bearing his name that is so threatening to the US Empire to this day?

Embodying at once the ‘red’ and ‘black’ scares, Venezuela is cast as a global socialist narco-terrorist ‘superpredator’ capable of stealing the 2020 election as well as ‘flooding the US with cocaine’ and simultaneously as a kleptocratic ‘basket case.’”

For years, a specter has haunted the West, the specter of populism. Spawned originally by the leftist “Pink Tide” sweeping Latin America in the 2000s, the populist menace has morphed into a generalized moral panic following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The far-right real estate mogul has come to personify the proverbial barbarian at the gates of liberal democracy, in the eyes of the US ruling class, alongside an unlikely doppelganger: Venezuela’s socialist Afro-indigenous president, Hugo Chávez Frías, who according to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently returned from the grave to rig the 2020 US election. How are we to understand US elites’ obsession with Chávez and what can that tell us about the racial ideology underpinning US imperialism? What is it about Chávez and the national-popular movement bearing his name that is so threatening to the US Empire to this day? In what follows, I will make a case for reading the reactionary fixation with Chávez as an index of Chavismo’s enduring world-historical significance. I argue that Chávez must be taken seriously as a Marxist thinker whose praxis of “mutual interpellation” with the popular masses – perhaps unique in the post-Cold War world – has crucial implications for revolutionary theory and practice across the globe. 

Race and ideological representation

In the aftermath of Trump’s defeat, Rudy Giuliani accused Venezuela of meddling in the 2020 US election together with billionaire financier George Soros and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile from the other side of the political spectrum, the New York Times broke with its time-honored practice of promoting  baseless fraud claims targeting official US enemies, warning that in refusing to recognize the election result, Trump took up the “time-honored tools of dictators… commonly employed by leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.” The apparent political conflict occults the fundamental ideological consensus: both the Trumpian “fringe” and the (neo)liberal-neoconservative “extreme center” construe Chavismo as a threat to democracy that must be violently contained through murderous economic sanctions and/or “humanitarian intervention.” 

How are we to understand this convergence? In Abolition Democracy, Angela Davis writes: “[T]he terrain for the production of the terrorist as a figure in the American imaginary reflects vestiges of previous moral panics as well, including those instigated by the mass fear of the criminal and the communist.”[1] Charisse Burden-Stelly elaborates on this insight, observing that “the Communist was n*****ized insofar as the n***** is the most ‘inferior, stained, and impure’ non-white. The Communist/Black became entangled as not-white/not-American since whiteness meant citizenship, nationalism, patriotism, and belonging.”[2] Anti-communism and anti-blackness are thus interwoven into the discursive fabric of the US imperial ideology of American exceptionalism, which presents the United States as a uniquely endowed “land of opportunity” where hard work is the only barrier to social mobility. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes, cultural racism is indispensable in cohering this foundational meritocratic fantasy by disavowing its underside of disproportionately black poverty systemically (re)produced by capitalism.[3] In other words, by blaming black as well as poor white people for their poverty while cultivating a black bourgeois elite, the US imperial state’s ideological apparatuses aim to inoculate the body politic against the virus of communism and anti-capitalist radicalism more broadly. 

Anti-communism and anti-blackness are interwoven into the discursive fabric of the US imperial ideology of American exceptionalism.”

Following Stuart Hall,[4] Chavismo and its metonym “Venezuela” function within this discourse as a floating signifier that oscillates between the “n*****ized” particularity of tropical populist “authoritarianism” on the one hand and the universality of “communism,” “socialism,” and Muslim-aligned “narco-terrorism” through its (real or imagined) association with Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, Hizbollah, Soros, and the FARC on the other. Embodying at once the “red” and “black” scares, Venezuela is cast as a global socialist narco-terrorist “superpredator” capable of stealing the 2020 election as well as “flood[ing] the US with cocaine” and simultaneously as a kleptocratic “basket case” parasitically rich in oil wealth but starving its own people. And precisely because Chavismo is an empty signifier, it can acquire different valences according to its position in the signifying chain. As we have seen above, Venezuela is undoubtedly the fantasmatic Other of a US and Ibero-Latin American far-right, for whom it fulfills extraordinary functions from masterminding mass protests in Chile Ecuador, and the United States itself to controlling political parties and politicians, whether Spain’s Podemos, the US Democrats, or Colombia’s Gustavo Petro. Meanwhile, for the “extreme center,” Chavismo occupies a subsidiary position in relation to the master-signifier of “Russia” which is believed to have engineered the rise of Trump and right-wing populism across the global North, notably with “Chavista characteristics.” As Hall emphasizes, the racialized floating signifier slides seamlessly between biology and culture such that Chavismo has “contagion effects beyond Venezuela ” and Russians are “almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor.” We must ask then, what is it about Chavismo that allows it to play this critical role in sustaining the ideological fantasies of both the Trumpian ultra-right and the establishment “extreme center” in the context of arguably the deepest institutional crisis since the US Civil War?

Chávez’s Bolivarian Marxism

As Reinaldo Iturriza, Ociel López, George Ciccariello-Maher, and others have documented,[5] Chavismo was not a top-down creation of Chávez but a bottom-up movement – organized by the black and indigenous semi-proletariat of the peripheral shantytowns alongside former communist guerillas – of which the future president was himself a product. It was precisely this class fraction, constituted by small producers displaced from the countryside without being fully integrated into the industrial or service sectors,[6] which similarly played a decisive role in the Algerian Revolution and Black Freedom Struggle in the US.[7] And like both revolutionary sequences, the Bolivarian Process was, from the outset, a movement of world-historical significance. Just months before the Berlin Wall fell and Western imperialism proclaimed the end of history, the Venezuelan masses came down from the hills in the first ever rebellion against IMF-imposed neoliberal structural adjustment, known as the Caracazo. A decade later, as the Bush administration geared up to destroy “seven countries in five years,” Chávez was once again raising the banners of Third World nationalism and eventually twenty-first-century socialism, initiating a wave of left-wing advances across the hemisphere.  From the Bolivarian Alliance of Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and PetroCaribe to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Venezuela and Cuba spearheaded a counter-hegemonic project of worldmaking, which sought not just “nondomination”[8] vis-à-vis US imperialism but, at least in the case of the ALBA, socialist delinking from the capitalist world-system. 

“Venezuela and Cuba spearheaded a counter-hegemonic project of worldmaking.”

It is not entirely surprising that, despite being battered by US economic carpet bombing and non-stop coup efforts that have strengthened the hand of rightist reformist forces within the state, Chavismo continues to be the boogeyman of Euro-American ruling classes across the hemisphere just like revolutionary Haiti was in the nineteenth-century.[9] Indeed, the histories of both Caribbean nations have long been intertwined: Haiti played a pivotal role in Venezuelan independence and arguably anticipated the “Pink Tide” with the 1984-86 revolt that toppled Jean-Claude Duvalier and paved the way for the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the region’s first elected leftist since Salvador Allende. The present Haitian rebellion against the Biden-backed Moïse dictatorship continues in this tradition, possibly prefiguring a new leftist cycle in the region.

Perhaps we should read the reactionary obsession with Chavismo as a symptom of its world-historical importance, which has been ignored by a Western left busy proclaiming the end of the Pink Tide that it did little to defend from unceasing imperialist aggression in the first place. Indeed Chavismo has been largely pigeonholed within the paradoxically narrow yet overly broad frame of “populism,”[10]impeding consideration of its transversal theoretical implications. Chávez, in particular, has not only been utterly discounted as a serious revolutionary thinker, but his theoretical-political innovations have been distorted[11] by the corporate media and even the Western social democratic left, who portray the Venezuelan leader as at best a tropical social democrat or at worst an authoritarian populist strongman.[12] Apropos Cedric Robinson, it might thus be productive to reflect on Chávez’s relationship with Marxism and other revolutionary traditions. As Iturriza observes, Chávez understood that to construct a new popular majority with the “dark [semi-]proletariat”[13] at its core, it was necessary to go “beyond the left,” as former communist guerrilla leader Alfredo Maneiro and others argued, breaking with the traditional organizing praxes of parliamentarianism and trade unionism that failed to garner more than five percent of the electorate for decades: 

“It might be productive to reflect on Chávez’s relationship with Marxism and other revolutionary traditions.”

His [Chávez’s] “discovery” of the key idea of participatory and protagonistic democracy was decisive. It implied radically, mercilessly questioning of the traditional political culture of the left. For starters, the political leadership would have to abandon any pretension of being an “enlightened vanguard” and would have to learn to move through the popular catacombs… like fish in the water. They could take the word to the people, yes, but above all come to and understand the suffering of the masses and accompany their struggles. It seems to me that Chávez, who has been accused of being a messianic, vertical, authoritarian leader, understood that the common citizen had to be treated as an equal: with respect and dignity. I am not at all sure that we’ve assimilated his profound impact in the sphere of political culture![14]

Chávez thus embraced a dialectic of “mutual interpellation” vis-à-vis the pueblo[15] – arguably unique in the post-Cold War world[16] –, which was simultaneously thrust upon him from below. Driven forward by the “whip” of US-led counter-revolution, the Venezuelan leader came to adopt the “strategic hypothesis” of the commune, a form of bottom-up territorial organization combining participatory democracy exercised by communal councils with socialized control of the means of production, which he conceived as the foundation for a popular-democratic hegemony capable of confronting the metabolic logic of capital embedded in the petro-state.[17] In this sense, the comandante articulated a vision of “twenty-first-century socialism” that sought to transcend the failures and defeats of the USSR and of an orthodox Venezuelan left nursed on Soviet manuals, proposing to radically transform bourgeois representative democracy paradoxically through popular participation at and beyond the ballot box. Immanent in Chavismo is a critique of Western Marxism not altogether different from that advanced by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism. However, Chávez (and the Chavista movement) never saw any fundamental contradiction between the Marxist and Bolivarian traditions, as evidenced in the late president’s weekly Aló Presidente television broadcasts where he seamlessly referenced Marx, Bolivar, Lenin, Zamora, Mao, Martí, Luxumburg, Trotsky, Christ, Che, Gramsci, Kropotkin, Mariátegui, Mészáros, among numerous other revolutionary thinkers. Indeed for Chávez, Marxism was not a mere “apprenticeship” or “staging area for… [his] immersion”[18] into an autochthonous radicalism but a tradition he fully embraced in the final years of his life as 

undoubtedly the most advanced theory firstly in the scientific interpretation of history, of peoples’ concrete reality, and also… the most advanced proposal towards [creating] the world that Christ came to herald over 2,000 years ago, the kingdom of God here on Earth, the kingdom of equality […].[19]

The comandante articulated a vision of ‘twenty-first-century socialism’ that sought to transcend the failures and defeats of the USSR and of an orthodox Venezuelan left.”

But like countless fellow revolutionaries across the global South and within the imperial core, Chávez and other Venezuelan militants[20]“stretched”[21] Marxism to account for Venezuelan reality – the predominance of an urban black and indigenous semi-proletariat in a peripheral rentier capitalist social formation –, and in demonstrating its incompleteness, reconstituted the originally Euro-centered theory as a concrete universality embodying that excluded particularity.[22] Chávez’s was thus a distinctly Bolivarian Marxism initially elaborated by the former communist guerrillas of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (PRV) that drew as much from “liberation theology, [the Afro-Venezuelan cult of] María Lionza, Mariátegui, and the history of slave rebellions in Venezuela and elsewhere”[23] as it did from Marx, Lenin, or Gramsci. It was precisely this theoretical reflection forged in the heat of revolutionary practice that led Chávez to place the protagonism of Venezuela’s “dark [semi-]proletariat”[24] at the center of his strategic political project of communal socialism and anti-imperialist internationalism. 

The Struggle Against Empire

The fantasmatic fixation with Chavismo on the part of US ruling class fractions tells us a lot about the racial ideology of American exceptionalism undergirding US imperialism. This paranoia might best be interpreted as an index of Chavismo’s enduring liberatory potential whose universal implications I have taken a very tentative first step in partially sketching out. Most of my discussion has centered on Chávez as theorist-cum-strategist, which is a line of inquiry largely neglected by Northern scholars and leftist intellectuals, who have yet to take seriously the late president’s revolutionary thought. However, the Bolivarian movement crucially “preceded” and “exceeded”[25] its dialectical relationship with Chávez, and as such we must continue to excavate its past and living present through bottom-up social history. But this can be no idle intellectual pursuit: theoretically reckoning with Chavismo must be organically embedded in an anti-imperialist praxis aimed at urgently halting the murderous US onslaught against not only Venezuela and countless other global South nations from Yemen and Syria to Cuba and Iran, but also black, red, and other communities of color within the empire. 

Lucas M. Koerner  is a Doctoral Student in Latin American and Caribbean History. After completing his B.A. in sociology and Spanish at Tufts University in 2014, he lived in Caracas, Venezuela for five years, working as a staff writer and editor at the independent news outlet Venezuelanalysis.com. Lucas’ research interests include imperialism, populism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism(s) of the global South.

[1]  Angela Y Davis, Abolition Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010).

[2]  Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Cold War Culturalism and African Diaspora Theory: Some Theoretical Sketches,” Souls 19, no. 2 (February 13, 2017): 216, https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2016.1239169.

[3]  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[4]  Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[5]  Reinaldo Iturriza López, El Chavismo Salvaje (Caracas: Editorial Trinchera, 2016). George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). Ociel Alí López, ¡Dale Más Gasolina! Chavismo, Sifrinismo, y Burocracia(Caracas: Casa Nacional de las Letras Andrés Bello). Also see Alejandro Velasco, Barrio rising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.