By Edwin Madunagu
| Hugo Chavez
The most important facts and lessons to which I wish to draw attention in this article are concentrated in three historical periods: from Hugo Chavez’s enrolment in the Venezuelan army (1970) to his attempted coup, and imprisonment, that is (1970 – 1994); from his formal entry into national politics to election as president (1994 – 1988); and from his first inauguration as president to the attempted counter-revolutionary coup against his government (1999 – 2002).
From April 2002 (after the failed coup) to Hugo Chavez’s death in March 2013, the revolutionary process was pre-occupied with two main tasks: defending itself against continuing (and indeed ever-increasing) America’s imperialist hostility allied to the forces of internal counter-revolution and trying to deliver on what the regime had called a transition to 21st century socialism.
I shall not, in this particular article, dwell on the first engagement, which in any case, is an open book: a new chapter in a long history of aggression. As for the second, I shall generally, but briefly, make some comments embodying a reformulation of what the Hugo Chavez revolution was doing, or trying to do. Although a defence of Hugo Chavez is inevitable – and some would say mandatory for me, especially in the face of deliberate misinformation, falsification and slander – that is not my main focus here.
Hugo Chavez was in office between February 1999 and March 2013, that is, a period of 14 years and a month. Within this period he won re-election three times: July 2000; December 2006; and October 2012. In August 2004 he won a “recall referendum on whether he should serve out the rest of his term”, that is, whether he should be removed from office.
The people said No. In December 2007 he lost a constitutional referendum, which included the proposal to lift the restriction imposed on the number of times elected state officials (including the president) could run for the same office. Fourteen months after this, in February 2009, he won a repeat referendum on the same question.
The argument of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement on this question of “limitless” number of re-elections (of elected officials) was bold and straight forward: In this transition period which counter-revolutionary forces had literally turned into a war, competent and committed elected officials should be able to stay in office as long as the people, through democratic elections and referendums, want it to be so. Each election or referendum was hotly, and at times, bitterly fought – with American imperialism appearing as Chavez’s strongest foe.
In the closing paragraph of the third segment, I said that the first stage of Chavez’s socio-economic programme consisted of a series of radical populist interventions. It was a socio-economic reform programme quite alright, but its significance went beyond that: it was, more importantly, a radical announcement to the subject classes and groups of Venezuela and Latin America that a government that belonged to them, and would therefore truly serve them, had arrived. It was a wake-up call.
That programme of radical interventions was called Plan Bolivar and was announced on February 27, 1999, the 10th anniversary of the 1989 massacre when soldiers were sent to the streets to suppress a peaceful protest. Five thousand people were killed then.
Now, 10 year later, under Plan Bolivar, hundreds of soldiers returned to the people: opening up and linking forgotten communities, constructing or reconstructing roads, especially rural ones, building bridges, constructing drainages, building classroom blocks and rural health clinics, giving petty – commodity producers (such as fishermen) “soft” loans, in kind and in cash, removing certain categories of taxes and levies from the poor, etc. The soldiers told the people: “Ten years ago we came to you with guns; but today we are here to atone for that crime”.
The political mobilization accompanying this programme was not confined to the lower classes and poor masses – although that was the strategic mobilization. The revolutionary movement saw the urgent need to broaden its campaign: it started constructing what Hugo Chavez called the “polynomial of power” or “power polynomial” whose “strategic goal” was the building of “alliances with sectors of the civil society like the church, businesses, intellectuals, academics, professionals, and so forth”.
This was how Chavez saw the task of mobilizing the middle and upper classes for the revolutionary process: “It is like a game of chess; I have my pieces, I prepare my move in my head and then I go for it. But in front of me there is an extremely powerful adversary, with the capacity to influence these sectors, especially through control of the media, which has a huge impact on the middle class.”
Nigerian Leftists of my own generation and, perhaps, a step younger, especially those who passed through practical experiences similar to mine would understand what Hugo Chavez called “power polynomial” although this did not go by that name here.
Power polynomials are conceived as “defensive shields” not only for revolutionary regimes but also for revolutionary organisations struggling for power – either as an immediate political objective or as a distant one. And the political history of Latin America in the last 40 years has shown that given certain correlation of forces a genuine revolutionary regime can come to power through elections.
However, power polynomials, properly conceived, are centres of genuine popular power; they must not degenerate into bands of fascist thugs that eventually get integrated into the state apparatus. Wherever this had happened in a modern revolution the result had been catastrophic: first for the people – including the “makers” of the revolution – and then for the revolution itself.
We may recall that while Hugo Chavez was being inaugurated president of Venezuela in February 1999, General Olusegun Obasanjo, recently released from prison, was passing through the final phases of “coronation” as president of Nigeria.
In Venezuela, Chavez came to office through an election conducted by forces that were antagonistic to him, but in Nigeria, Obasanjo’s coronation was done by forces that the masses had battled in the preceding 15 years. While in Venezuela Hugo Chavez started his administration with radical, though populist and reformist socio-economic interventions within the confines of the existing constitution, Obasanjo started in Nigeria by trying to destroy or neutralise centres of potential challenge to his regime.
In June 1993 the Nigerian Left helped in no small measure in ensuring the victory of Moshood Abiola in the presidential election; but it was ironic, to say the least, that six year later the Left could not prevent Obasanjo’s coronation. That coronation was the root of the current stage of our national catastrophe. The areas of socioeconomic intervention selected by the Hugo Chavez regime under Plan Bolivar were areas which any revolutionary movement anywhere should have seen even before coming to power.
In Nigeria areas of intervention would include all those areas listed in Plan Bolivar, and more: problems like corruption, violence and unemployment would make the list.
Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialism” is a big subject and will be taken up, together with other aspects of the revolutionary process not touched upon here in a future article. But, for now, I would limit myself to a few notes on the nature of socialism.
Socialism is not like bread, which you either have or do not have; it is not a state of things, which either exists or does not exist. I learnt along the route that brought my socialist consciousness to maturity that socialism is a complex social movement whose foundations must be consciously constructed but whose ultimate “destination” is so distant that to me it resembles the concept of “infinity.” Infinity can be approached as closely as we may prescribe in concrete terms but it can never be reached. Attaining “full socialism” is like attaining infinity.
This point can be put differently: However large or distant something may be, as soon as you determine its size or measure its length, and represent these in numbers, it becomes less than infinity and can therefore be superseded, that is, improved upon.
Socialist construction is like that. It follows that the question to ask about Chavez’s Venezuela (or indeed China) is not whether the country is socialist or not but how far socialist construction has gone, how strong the foundations are, and the prospects for advance.
In posing and answering these questions, we should bear in mind that a socialist construction does not begin in a historical vacuum. This fact comes heavily into the programme of initial interventions. Also, socialist construction is a continuous and holistic critique of capitalism.
This construction can start in a national territory but can only closely approach that “completeness”, that “infinity”, globally. Finally, for me, socialist construction means only one thing, in summary: a progressive, concrete, continuous and measurable transition into the realm of equality.