The Death of Hugo Chavez

Hugo-Chavez-speaks-at-his-001The announcement of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez provides an opportunity for us to look back on the most important moments in his extraordinary life. In February 1992, he and a group of his comrades from the Venezuelan army launched a coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez. The coup attempt failed, but the incident that would make Chavez a national figure was still to come. Facing the prospect of defeat, Chavez delivered a national TV address to his comrades-in-arms. He told them to lay down their weapons, not to shed anymore blood. He told them that he took responsibility for the defeat and that, por ahora, the struggle was over. This por ahora (for now) shook the Venezuelan people. Chavez and his confederates were carted off to jail. But his words suggested their time would come, so Venezuelans – exhausted by decades of elite political corruption – waited.

Lieutenant Colonel Chavez returned to the scene after a spell in jail. In 1994 he launched a country-wide campaign that would sweep his Bolivarian movement to a momentous victory in the presidential elections four years later. The old political system that he failed to topple by force collapsed under the sheer weight of his personality. He won the hearts of millions of dispossessed Venezuelans. A dark-skinned Colonel from a working class background, he was the opposite of the mestizo elite which had dominated Venezuela since Simon Bolivar won its independence in the 19th Century. To the Venezuelans masses, excluded from the political system and denied the wealth of the country, Chavez was the sign of their own awakening. They found a new dignity through this remarkable figure.

What now? Threatening noises from the right and from the displaced colonial powers are to be expected: they will call for a ‘transition’, for a ‘moving beyond’ the ‘divisions’ of the Chavez era. But the oligarchy knows Chavez died undefeated. Despite their attacks, coups, plots and lies they couldn’t beat him. Their crowing tonight and in the days ahead can only amount to a hollow victory.

The pain of his supporters – the poor and the working class – will be huge. Socialists – and all those who defend the right of nations to determine their own fate – will be hurting. With Chavez’s death, they are lost, but only por ahora – only for the moment.