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People Aur Politics

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Hugo Chavez is dead. But his spirit still lives. In the eulogies to the great Bolivarian socialist, in the commitment to continue his task, in the cries of millions of people who have declared: ‘We are Chavez’, the promise is that his legacy shall be kept alive.

Most famous for his blunt speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, especially his famous declaration when asked to speak after United States President Geogre W Bush, “The devil just left the building and it still smells of sulphur”, Chavez was the most blunt critic of the US imperialism and spoke out against the Afghan and Iraq wars at every forum. A true internationalist, he became the fountainhead of the revival of the Latin American block, and tried to expand it to a block of the Global South – much like the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s and 70s. This included a proposal to create a Bank of the South proposal and an alternate to the toothless UN.

But his most cherished legacy shall remain how he reinvigorated the dream of socialism – “each shall get according to his needs”, rescuing it from its so-called death in the 20thcentury and pushing it into the 21st century. That Chavez died young, he was only 58, and will be unlike the ailing – but still witty and intelligent – Fidel Castro shall perhaps add to his mystique and splendour. He died at the peak of his popularity, at a time when the unity he provided was needed most, but perhaps, if the Bolivarian revolution he inspired is to continue beyond him, he died at the right time. His cult of personality having enamoured the oppressed of the world, it was time that the oppressed take the legacy and make it their own.

Born to impoverished parents, Chavez joined the Venezuelan army, only to be disgusted by how it was an instrument to protect a corrupt ruling class. In 1992, Chavez attempted a failed coup and was jailed. In 1998, released from jail, he contested the elections and with 56 percent voting for him, he became president. By 1999, Chavez started a radical programme of redistributing the country’s wealth and initiated the drafting up of a new constitution – one that can allow a break from the contours of the bourgeois state. In 2000, he contested the elections again – putting his popularity and the new constitution to the test – and won again. The programme – based on nationalising the oil wealth, creating workers collectives, increasing social spending – did not go down well with the wealth owning classes of Venezuela and the US, whose stakes in the Venezuelan oil were taken away. A coup against him was attempted. Deposed for two-days, Chavez was brought back into power by what could be described as a people’s counter coup. Comandante Chavez returned with more zeal and began to change the contours of the Venezuelan state – relabelled the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to cherish the legacy of 19th century Latin American revolutionary Simon de Bolivar. He began to restructure the most important pillars of the state and society, including the media, military, ruling class, the economy and the state itself.

Chavez asked a simple question: why was 85 percent of the population of the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter poor? Chavez provided the answer. Radically shifting government spending priorities to providing employment, healthcare and schooling: household poverty fell to26.4 percent by 2009 while unemployment fell from 15 percent to 7.8 percent. This was as the rest of the world’s economy was going into crisis, the US and Europe faced unemployment and state debts, and the neoliberal economic experts that had pillaged Latin America in the 1980s and 90s continued to declare: Venezuela’s bubble will burst.

An avowed democrat: Chavez won 56 percent of the vote in 1998, 60 percent in 2000, survived a coup in 2002, got over seven million votes in 2006 and secured 54.4 percent of the vote in October 2012. The US and Europe continued to gaze a skeptical glance at how a Marxist leader could continue holding and winning elections. How could he continue to sway the population and extend his influence across the globe? ‘Elections are rigged, political opponents are targeted, media is silenced,’ is what the Western powers said.

Pakistan has experienced a somewhat similar period in its history: the policies and slogans of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto still have a deep resonance with the toiling classes. The attempt to nationalise industries in the Bhutto period was overturned by a US-backed right wing movement and the Zia military coup. If the liberals remember the late Gen Zia for ratcheting up religious fundamentalism, the left remembers him for de-nationalising industries and spurring on the wealth divide once again. But Bhutto was different: he alienated people, he strengthened the strong arm of the state, he found allies within the existing land-owning classes – and by the time he was deposed, there was no mass agitation to bring him back.

When the 2002 coup against Chavez was completed, the head of Venezuela’s largest business association was declared the leader of a transitional government. The coup showed the clear connection between business interests and the military – something Venezuela shares with Pakistan. The difference was that the revolution in Venezuela had deeper roots – the redistribution of wealth, the feeling of being a part of government, was real and felt at the grassroots. Chavez’s popular weekly programme, ‘Hello, Mr President,’ where people would be able to call in – for eight-hours or more at a stretch – to speak to the president and cabinet ministers to speak about their problems, democratised the centre of governance and made it more transparent. The programme was radical: the processes at the top-tier governance became open to public scrutiny – something the most cherished first world ‘democracies’ cannot claim.

The questions over media independence need to be answered by giving some local context. While Chavez maintained that media independence is a valuable aim, the lack of independence in corporate media is very easy to observe. The fact that each newspaper blocks out news stories that are against the corporate and political interests that back it is ignored – partly because the media is the one valourising itself. For example, one of the newspapers I have worked for shot down a story of last week’s sit-in for the rights of janitors at the LUMS, another has taken a week to get the same story ‘approved’. The fear is that the big barons at LUMS’ board of directors would ‘mind’. Is such so-called ‘media freedom’ worth treasuring?

There can be genuine criticisms of Chavez, but the fact that he stifled the corporate media is not one. The documentary, The Revolution will not be televised, traced how the Venezuelan media was complicit in the coup against him to great depth.

It is Chavez that has showed for the new generations that socialism can thrive, that the future of the world need not be determined by naked capitalist exploitation. A friend posted on Facebook: “After the breakup of the USSR, when Lenin seemed old-fashioned, Mao’s China turned capitalist and Fidel’s Cuba barely hung-on, it was Chavez’s Venezuela that put socialism back onto the world stage.”

If ever there is a revolution in Pakistan – big business families would have to cede their business interests and become equals to the working class. All the existing political parties would oppose such an endeavour, as it would go against their class interests. The military would also join in as soon as the eye is cast on its humongous business interests. Anyone desiring a revolution in Pakistan would have to take all three head on: political parties, the military and the media. Chavez has shown that it can be done.

The question is: who will be our Chavez?

The writer is the general secretary

(Lahore) of the Awami Workers Party. He is a journalist and a researcher. Contact: hashimbrashid@gmail.com
http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2013/03/06/comment/columns/who-will-be-our-chavez/

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