Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, was at first kept at arm’s length by many of the progressive movements worldwide. The Left, shy of state power after the collapse of the Soviet bureaucratic bloc, tended to view Chavez’s inauguration in 1999 with skepticism or even contemptuous dismissal.
But with experience the pejorative jabs, such as ‘Bonapartist’ (Marxist for unprincipled centrist) or ‘pro-capitalist demagogue,’ have largely dissolved into critical support and even, in some cases, adulation. This past week, Chavez addressed the World Social Forum in Brazil, where his call to arms against the U.S. Empire – his summary of the problem, “ the most negative force in the world today is the government of the United States” – and neo-liberalism was warmly received.
In short, Hugo Chavez has emerged as an iconic figure in the anti-imperialist and social justice movements. More than just a symbol, of course, his contribution and the development of the social revolution in Venezuela deserve close study and examination.
Chavez, Venezuela and the New Latin America, a new documentary from the Australian-based Ocean Press, makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Venezuelan process. Though the film, which features an extended interview of Chavez by Aleida Guevara, Che’s daughter, does at times verge on hagiography, its importance lies in its examination of the profound causes of Venezuela’s social and political upheaval.
The documentary traces the recent history of the Bolivarian process only briefly, as excellent productions such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised have already covered in riveting detail the events surrounding the April 2002 coup against Chavez. Rather, this new production features a number of interviews with the protagonists of social change, speaking with political organizers in the barrios of Caracas, and in the pro-Chavez wing of the military.
An insightful segment of the film highlights the role of the more than 10 000 Cuban volunteers – mostly doctors and other medical personnel – assisting in the implementation of Venezuela’s ambitious social programs in health care delivery and adult literacy campaigns, among others. The interviews with these Cuban professionals, working amidst extreme poverty, and with rightist violence aimed at intimidating them, provide a potent rebuttal to simplistic anti-socialist pundits the world over. Calm, good-humoured, and yet possessing profound seriousness about their efforts, the doctors from Cuba speak clearly about their motivation to help a sister Latin American people.
The interview with Chavez is also revealing. The Venezuelan leader is playful, hyper-active and always charismatic in responding to Guevara’s questions, whether speaking of his early baseball exploits, or reveling in the “perfect mix” of African and Indian that makes up the Caribbean people. (This jovial moment in the interview will be particularly irksome for much of the anti-Chavez opposition, which frequently uses despicable, racialized caricatures to attack the president).
This is clearly a politician with an eclectic yet profoundly radical political orientation. His efforts to recover and highlight the most explicitly anti-imperialist and progressive content of the continent’s nationalist heroes like Simon Bolivar closely resembles Fidel Castro’s invocation of the legacy of Cuban national hero Jose Marti.
There are a number of other parallels to the revolutionary process in Cuba that are striking; the film shows a massive demonstration celebrating the failed insurrection that Chavez led on February 4, 1992 against the country’s ancien regime. Much like Cuba’s continued celebration of the Moncada assault of July 26, 1953, Chavez seems determined to turn a bitter defeat into an inspiration and rallying point.
The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, though, is a process without historical precedent, and is certainly not destined to simplistically attempt to follow the Cuban model. A deep-going, if uneven, radicalization of the poor and working classes is underway, and its outcome or final direction is yet to be decided.
One disappointment is that Chavez, Venezuela, and the New Latin America fails to look too much at the contradictions or to examine too closely the potential struggles ahead. Chavez’s invocation of “winds of change” crossing Latin America rings somewhat hollow when the only examples given are Kirschner and Lula, the presidents of Argentina and Brazil who have come, increasingly, to represent the disappointing results of centre-left elected governments on the continent.
Hopefully, independent filmmakers will continue to shed light on the political process transforming Venezuela. The world needs more efforts like Chavez, Venezuela and the New Latin America.