By Edwin Madunagu
Last Thursday, in the opening segment of this series, I surveyed the tributes, positive and negative, that followed the death of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela on March 5, 2013. I intend to stay close to these tributes. In 2005, the Monthly Review Press, New York, released a book: Understanding the Venezuelan revolution: Hugo Chavez talks to Marta Harnecker. The interview was recorded in June 2002, two months after the failed military coup against President Chavez.
Marta Harnecker is a respected and well-known researcher and author in Latin American Leftist politics. The 200-page, well-annotated and smooth-flowing book was the first comprehensive account of Venezuela’s revolutionary process to come my way. Before then most of what I knew about what was going on in the country were accounts by the Euroamerican press. The hostility of this press, as we all know, is categorical.
The presidential election that brought Hugo Chavez to power took place in December 1998, and the inauguration was held early in 1999. So, the interview I referred to took place three years and a half into the regime. Areas covered by Hugo Chavez included the background to the revolutionary process, the transition to ‘Chavezism’ (a transition that was unbelievably peaceful, constitutional, democratic and “institutional”); the role of the military in the revolution (and counterrevolution); revolutionary socioeconomic intervention (by the state); foreign policy; and the April 11, 2002 failed coup d’état.
Commenting on the book, Saul Landau, an author said: “Marta Harnecker’s penetrating questions bring out the profundity of Hugo Chavez’s intelligence and his sense of commitment – as well as sense of humour. This book is indispensable for understanding the revolutionary process in Venezuela”. I agree. Get the book and hear the man himself talk – in different situations.
Michael Parenti, another author, said: “The calumny heaped upon Venezuela’s courageous president by U.S. officialdom and major media has misled a lot of people, including many who claim to be on the left (emphasis mine).
This well-crafted, well-edited, and engaging book is a bracing antidote and a pleasure to read. Here you will discover the real Hugo Chavez: a highly educated, brilliant, democratic revolutionary leader, and a man of deep and thoroughly admirable humanity”. Samir Amin does not require an introduction.
He commented: “Marta Harnecker’s important book helps clarify the challenges facing Venezuela’s ongoing revolutionary process. The decisive role played by Hugo Chavez in initiating the revolutionary process and the immense support he continues to receive from the popular classes make this book necessary reading for understanding the forces at work in what may well become a stage in the long-run transformation of the global system”.
Samir Amin’s tribute and that of Tatalo Alamu of The Nation on Sunday point in the same direction: Whereas Samir Amin says “…in what may well become a stage in the long-run transformation of the global system”, Tatalo Alamu talks of “providing us with a way out of the six hundred years of epistemological cul de sac of western modernity…” (The Nation on Sunday, March 17, 2013). The optimism expressed in these two tributes leads us back to history.
The United States of America exported the executive presidential system of government to the countries of Latin America. The various types of monstrosities this export then developed in each recipient country depended on that country’s historical peculiarities and specificities. But, generally, America’s “protectorates”, colonies and dependencies to the south were not prosperous enough to refine the rough faces and edges of the absolute monarchy which executive presidency so resembled.
America did not introduce democracy to Latin America. The new colonialists taking over from Spain and Portugal did not consider democracy necessary to guarantee their exploitation and domination. Having domesticated and consolidated the executive presidential system, the rulers of the nominally independent countries of Latin America then made their own contributions to modern politics: highly politicized military, coups d’état, military dictatorship, armed struggle and guerrilla warfare.
For a period covering a greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, there was no country in Latin America where a guerrilla warfare was not going on at each point in time. In other words, at each point in time, whoever was in power – a military junta or a civilian government, elected or selected – there were serious armed insurrections challenging the state.
Serving military officers spent their time planning coups d’état and insurrections; retired officers did the same: waiting for recall or self-recall to active duty, in politics or in the military. I read somewhere that a standard joke in Colombia at a time was this dialogue between a serving army officer and a retiring one:
Serving officer: “What will you be doing now that you are retiring?”
Retiring officer: “What do you mean? Planning insurrections, of course.”
Military officers moved from the barracks to presidential palaces and government houses, and back; public servants, priests, teachers and students moved easily into the jungle and back again. To wish to contest for power was understood to mean going either through the barrel of the gun or the ballot box, or both. Politics and political power had direct, unmediated definition in Latin America.
So, when Hugo Chavez said, in the 2002 interview that the process that brought him to power via presidential election in December 1998 was “peaceful, but not disarmed” I understood him both literally and metaphorically. Whether a particular coup d’état was good or bad depended on whether it was Left or Right, not whether it was armed or unarmed, peaceful or violent.
The Latin American political culture described here was not chosen by the people. To go to its roots is to examine how brutal and utterly enslaving the forms of colonialism and neocolonialism that those people passed through. To put the matter directly, the experiences of the Latin American people under Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, American neocolonialism and “native” dictatorship made peaceful change almost impossible. Unlike in America and Canada, democratic change was completely ruled out under successive phases of Latin America’s modern history.
Regis Debray is a prominent French-born historician of armed struggles in Latin America. In 1965, he put out the book: Latin America: Some problems of revolutionary strategy. He said somewhere in the book: “The Venezuelans were the first to experience in the country most directly colonized by the United States because of its oil and iron, what the ‘people’s war’ has become in post–Cuban conditions. They paid dearly for their pioneering role”.
The emphasis, for me, is not only on “paying dearly”, for the masses throughout Latin America paid ‘dearly’ under colonial, semi-colonial and neocolonial regimes. The emphasis is also on “the country most directly colonized because of its oil and iron”. Hugo Chavez knew and encountered the two phenomena as a boy. He was conscious of these in 1970 when, at the age of 16, he entered the Academy of Military Sciences.
Today, 48 years after Regis Debray made his analysis, and 13 years into the Hugo Chavez revolutionary process, and several American presidents (Democrats and Republicans) later, the people of Venezuela are still “paying dearly” in defence of their “oil and iron”. It is, therefore, not surprising that under this historical condition Hugo Chavez found himself in a conspiratorial political group within the Military Academy.
He, of course, had a choice of going left or right, but he chose left or, perhaps, the left chose him. On December 17, 1982, four captains in the Venezuelan army, including Hugo Chavez, (aged 28) formed the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200) and swore an oath of commitment to liberating the nation. The organisation was named after Simon Bolivar (1783 – 1830), popularly regarded, and named, the Liberator of South America. Bolivar was born in Caracas, now capital of Venezuela; but he led and fought a liberation war almost across the entire continent.
The Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200) was named to commemorate the second centenary of Bolivar’s birth. It is also not surprising, given the background I had earlier sketched, that MBR 200 immediately linked up with leftist groups outside the military. In late February 1989, eight years after the formation of MBR 200, a massacre took place in Venezuela.
An increase in fuel prices had been decreed by the government and this sparked spontaneous, popular, but unarmed, insurrection throughout the country. Human rights groups reported that over 5,000 people were killed by the military in the course of restoring “law and order”.
Hugo Chavez and his military comrades were, of course, sent out to restore “law and order”. You may imagine how they felt. But they did what they must do to strike a balance between their consciousness, their conscience on the one hand and their recognition of the need not to be stupidly voluntaristic on the other: The 1989 “explosion”, as you would expect, greatly sharpened MBR’s consciousness, strengthened its organisation in the military and expanded its “contacts” in the civil society. Exactly three years later, in February 1992, they struck.
• To be continued.