“I have never failed you, I’ve never lied to you.” Probably there is only one head of state in the world today who can make a statement like this after holding office for fourteen years at a stretch and sound profoundly convincing. He is Hugo Rafael Chavez Frías of Venezuela.
Battling a malicious propaganda campaign by the country’s dominant corporate media and domestic as well as international money power freely utilized to manipulate the elections, Chavez recently scored his fourth electoral victory since 1998. He won a majority in 22 of the country’s 24 provinces including in the state of Miranda, where Capriles Radonski (candidate of the united opposition, who was an active collaborator in the 2002 coup and the subsequent oil lockout that temporarily paralyzed the entire economy) was governor. A cancer patient, Chavez had disappointed the opposition by refusing to be limited to televised propaganda and campaigned almost all over the country. The people responded with a record 81% participation, for they knew the stakes were high. The polling was so free and fair that Jimmy Carter went on record saying it was “the best in the world” and even the most shameless among the right wing media found no pretext to complain.
When the result – yet another slap on the face of Washington and its lackeys – was out, the people’s leader declared, “Venezuela will never return to neoliberalism and will continue in the transition to socialism of the 21st century”.
The electoral mandate is a clear popular endorsement of government policies that resulted in substantial reductions in poverty, unemployment and inequality. According to UN statistics, Venezuela is the least unequal society with the highest growth rate in Latin America. Thanks to innovative welfare programmes supported by popular activism, there is noticeable improvement in access to education and health services. More important is the great flourish of participatory democracy through the Bolivarian Circles or communal councils for community self management, the Worker Control Movement which is putting factories in the state sector and many closed-and-reopened factories under workers’ management, and other measures like these. People enjoy full freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, right to a fair trial, right to privacy; they have enough reason to defeat every effort to push the country back to the horrible days of old.
Compared to the last elections, however, Chavez’s vote share decreased from 62.9% to 55.25%. This is mainly attributed to problems like inflation and chronic water shortage and power cuts, which have alienated sections of the middle class in particular, and vices like bureaucracy, corruption and a rising crime graph in Caracas, which are a cause of concern for all. The reelected President has promised to vigorously address these maladies, placing land reforms and the workers’ control movement high on his agenda.
Right from the last years of the 20th century, Venezuela under the leadership of Hugo Chavez has been the flag bearer of Latin American resistance to imperialist economic and political domination. Starting with an initial endeavour to provide “an economic alternative to dehumanized capitalism” from within a capitalist setup to the present project of building “Socialism of 21st Century”, it has negotiated a long and difficult path in theory and practice. To try and build socialism by utilising the old state machine – instead of smashing it and building a new one – and by unleashing popular initiatives from below in numerous forms is a unique experiment in history. Ahead lies a set of tougher challenges, for the very idea of 21st century socialism is opposed not only by the US and Venezuelan elites but also by sections within the government and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Moreover, the latter is too precariously dependent on the will and vision, charisma and personality of one single leader.
Problems and pitfalls notwithstanding, at the moment let us all join our comrades and friends in Venezuela as they celebrate the hard-won victory against domestic and international reaction and prepare for the next round of a very difficult and protracted war. This is a victory of not just one individual or party, but of a sustained mass political movement with deep inspirational and social roots in the history of Latin America – indeed a victory for all peoples across the world who are searching for a humane alternative to the moribund neoliberal world order.