It takes more than an individual to upset the international chessboard as dramatically as in the last decade. Forces unleashed by the internal logic of capitalism have drawn a new geopolitical map, not yet fully understood, in which the United States has lost its former place as the planetary centre of gravity and the ultimate arbiter of the key issues of the economy, politics and war.
Yet, though changes of such magnitude were obviously not the work of one person, Hugo Chavez’s hallmark was a profound intuition of this impending change, combined with the will to intervene with a program and a strategy to shift the historical juncture towards consolidating a world suited to human needs.
And, assuredly, his role not only carried decisive weight in the early course of these changes, but will go on to transcend them. No one foresaw as Chavez did the dynamics that were breaking apart imperial power and even imperialism itself, nor acted with such lucidity and courage to position himself as a force leading this dynamic. This is why Venezuela is now in the centre of the world stage.
This mantle now falls on the government over which Nicolas Maduro will preside in a few weeks. It is a historical burden for the workers and people of a relatively small country with a small population, and an economy still underdeveloped and dependent, which nevertheless weighs, and will continue to weigh, with manifold force in shaping the future international relation of forces and the world to come.
Venezuela will carry weight in the world in the 21st century, just as it did in the hemisphere in the 19th under Simon Bolivar’s influence – but with even larger significance. That is the fruit of Hugo Chavez’s international policies over the last 15 years.
Practice and theory
Few even understood the trail which Chavez’s explosive intervention blazed, much less travelled along it. The key to such understanding lies in one central concept, two instruments of international policy and a strange energy that infused him with the political courage demanded by a break with capitalist diplomacy.
First, a necessary parenthesis. The reason that few, notably within the ambit of the left, understood or accompanied Chavez, is associated with an event as resonant as it is forgotten. In 1920, the Second Congress of the Third International did something that is still unknown to many: it changed the central slogan with which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels drew the strategic direction of the First International: "Workers of the world unite". Chaired by Lenin and Trotsky, the Communist International replaced that slogan with another war cry: "Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite". This change incorporated, no less, the concept of an anti-imperialist front and the notion of countries subject to the domination of the metropolis.
It matters little whether Chavez studied those key documents in the history of revolutionary thought. The fact is that he was guided by this strategy: to unite at all levels and throughout the world, the whole wide spectrum of classes, sectors and governments in one way or another confronted with imperialism.
Besides his unrivalled international militancy (the map of his countless trips in the last 15 years has yet to be drawn), Chavez dealt with two transnational instruments: with one, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), he collided headon; the other, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), he built from scratch.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, the final press conference of the Caribbean Conference of Presidents on December 13, 2001. Chavez announced the creation of an organisation whose acronym, he said, came to him while he was looking out to sea as the day began: ALBA [Spanish for “dawn”]. As these concepts were thrashed out, I sensed that this proposal, of tremendous strategic importance, yet lacking articulation, was an impassioned plea to the world to understand and act. Only one president responded: Fidel Castro. In the following years Chávez often told me, with his famous sense of humour, the story that unequivocally portrays the reality of those times: "The next day Fidel sent a little letter asking me to send him the ALBA documentation. What documentation? There was nothing!". The fact is that, not long after, Cuba and Venezuela founded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, initially called Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America Against ALCA (ALCA is the Spanish initials for FTAA).
Before that, Chavez had already begun the crucial battle against the FTAA. And he did it, from the middle of 2000, in a united front with a president ill disposed to the revolutionary course that Venezuela was already pursuing: Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
A quote from an April 2001 text conveys the climate:
"The basic reasons that big Brazilian industry is opposed to lifting all customs restrictions in the continent are pretty obvious and you don’t have to be a specialist to understand them: ‘as regards exports, Brazilian industry is at serious risk of losing domestic market share, Brazilian products will face foreign competition, which may be better and cheaper than national [producers]", recognizes O Estado de São Paulo (4/4/2001), the most powerful Brazilian newspaper ... What is clear is that [Cardoso] invited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to an emergency meeting in Brasilia; Chavez, as was to be expected, did not hesitate to change his schedule immediately to attend what would be his eighth meeting with Cardoso since taking office in 1999 ... the formation of a Brasilia-Caracas axis will leave its mark even if the “jeito mineiro” [the vacillations of Brazilian government leaders], obstruct the construction of a bloc around this axis and directed against Washington’s demands.
This article, published in Le Monde Diplomatique, was followed by another whose title says everything: “Brazil-Venezuela bloc frustrates advance towards ALCA.”
Chavez worked tirelessly on this raw material, and together with other actors in the region, eventually struck the hardest blow the US had suffered in strategic terms since its defeat in the Vietnam War: the crushing of the FTAA in the famous Mar del Plata meeting of 2005. With a conception, explicitly or otherwise, deeply rooted in the slogan "Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite", Chavez was the architect of this critical strategic defeat of imperialism. These same concepts would guide him to devote enormous efforts to the Group of 15, the revival of OPEC, the Non-Aligned Movement, Petrocaribe and whatever international body offered the slightest chance of joining forces against the imperial enemy, both outside Venezuela and within it.
That policy took a quantum leap forward with the creation of ALBA and the countries it subsequently incorporated, leading in 2008 to the creation of the SUCRE [Sistema Único de Compensación Regional, Unified System for Regional Compensation – ALBA’s nominal trade currency. “Sucre” also means “sugar” in Spanish], an integral component of that project, destined to transform into a building block of a new design for the international financial system.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, the strategic instruments of revolution took shape: communal councils and, key to everything, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. An ancient dictum prescribes that a country’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic policies. Venezuela reversed this: since 1998, Hugo Chavez’s actions on the international terrain, and the new regional and international relations of forces to which this gave rise, both facilitated and promoted the revolutionary radicalisation of its internal politics.
While urging the consolidation and growth of ALBA, Chavez forced (literally, it must be understood) the South American Community of Nations to transform itself into the Union of South American Nations. This was a product neither simply nor principally of his fondness for animating acronyms: the distance between “community integration” and “unity for emancipation” had to be saved, even if only in name. Then came CELAC Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños, Community of Latin American and Caribbean States], a real conquest with potentially momentous consequences, followed by Venezuela’s incorporation into Mercosur. The impact of an anti-capitalist force within institutions dominated by capitalist pettiness, remorselessly bogging them down or throwing them off course, was a touchstone in the strategy of the anti-imperialist front, revitalising structures best described as paralysed and dying.
That is why ALBA lies at the heart of this strategy: the key to the socialism of the 21st century is a union that, depending on the clarity and the courage of its component parts, shapes yet higher forms of unity, thus shaping the Latin American-Caribbean nation, and so taking the decisive step towards the socialist confederation of our country.
This road was laid by Chavez.
This, as much as it is, is not all. Chavez always stressed the difference between the unity of governments and the unity of peoples. With hands tied, for a historical moment that obliged him to operate through various forms of the anti-imperialist united front with disparate governments and rulers, he sought to give flesh to the only instrument that could truly fulfil the slogan "Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite". So on November 21, 2009, came the call to build the Fifth International.
It is a paradox that, having made so much ground with heads of state suspicious and obstructive at every turn, he could gain advance no further among left parties, social organisations, militants and revolutionary cadres. The paradoxical and eloquent man who rescued from oblivion and disgrace such crucial concepts as revolution, socialism, party and international, was not understood by those who in theory should be ahead of the leader.
The same thing happened to him in his first step towards revolution and glory in the 1992 uprising: informed by generalities, the left in Venezuela and the world abandoned him. It is equally telling that, notwithstanding this, Chavez, accompanied and driven by millions, gave birth to the most significant event of the last half century: the rebirth of socialism.
The same now applies: those men and women who understood and accompanied Chavez, will raise his flag and carry it forward, towards the emancipation of Latin America and all humanity. Let there be no hint of mysticism or grandeur: our dead comrade made history because he felt the deepest needs of the people, because he sensed, with great flashes of insight, the course of the greatest world crisis in history, and because he knew how to respond to it.
As I finish these notes from my desk in Buenos Aires, I hear from Caracas the announcement that el Comandante’s funeral is beginning. The presence of 54 heads of state and other senior leaders at the president’s funeral is proof of how effective his foreign policy has been. A poll published by theWashington Post says that 18% of Americans support Chavez. In Argentina the figure is 40%. What more proof is needed?
Watching the ceremony, I realise I can no longer discuss these views with the most lucid revolutionary leader of recent times. We will no longer have his living words. Even writing about it, it is impossible to absorb the loss.
The PSUV, the revolutionary government, the Venezuelan people and revolutionaries from around the world who now take over the tasks of the hour will have to overcome the shock and pursue the course of the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist strategy.
Hasta siempre, comandante, we will not allow our souls to rest in the pursuit of the struggle for socialism.
[Luis Bilbao is a founder and director of Critica de Nuestro Tiempo, and member of the Union of Militants for Socialism (Argentina). Bilbao has resided in Venezuela, as director of the Latin America-wide magazine America XXI, where he has collaborated in the creation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the process of building UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations. Among numerous books, he has published two long interviews with President Hugo Chavez through Le Monde Diplomatique.]
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