The fourth part of a series of seven articles by Marco Teruggi on Chavismo, the ongoing
socialist revolutionary project in Venezuela, that the Venezuelans fondly call Bolivarian
I was captivated by the man the very first time I saw him in Mar del Plata (Argentina), in 2005. He was standing before a packed stadium, quoting Eva Peron, talking about Francisco de Miranda. It was raining, there was a sea wind, and he was there for a master class in history. Beginning as a soldier in the Venezuelan military, he had already faced everything an empire unloads when one wants to challenge it and advance. That day I unknowingly became a Chavista. I was not the only one, we were thousands. There was something in his words, the historical time he carried, the certainty he offered.
I later saw him in Caracas. He made such a powerful impact. I remember the crowded avenue, the wait, the joy when suddenly, from the top of a truck, he appeared. Seeing him, the crowd went into a frenzy. It was a fascinating sight. The man had already become a myth.
A leadership of this magnitude was necessary to channel Venezuela’s organic crisis into a revolutionary outlet. There had been huge mobilisations of people since 1989, there had been so many struggles and defeats, and the country was at the crossroads, without knowing where to go. The left was fragmented, and its various factions were small, without much following. “There was no mass work, the popular struggles were frozen,” explained Chavez. The subjective and objective conditions were both ripe for a change; what was needed was someone who could gather around him the scattered people and mould them into a revolutionary force. Chavez declared he would do it. And he did it.
He built himself up as the President, Head of State, head of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB); he moulded himself as the leader of a historical movement and of a political party; he became a mass pedagogue, an astute political strategist, a theoretician. As sociologists say, he was a charismatic leader. Such leaders emerge every few decades on our continent, they break with the past, revive the class struggle, and lay the foundations for rebuilding society.
You cannot understand Chavismo without understanding the role of the leadership, both in the civilian government and the military. He was the one who led the movement from the front. He was the one who took along with him all the various parties and the different ideologies, who could contain the worst tendencies and advance the revolutionary project and gradually push it more and more towards the left. He became an almost mythical figure, who decisively won every election, including the one held just before his death. His last victory summoned a continent. The right, the empire, just did not know how to handle him.
Most political observers understand all this about Chavez. But Chavez was more than that: the people loved him, he was both father and brother to them. He continues to be among the people, continues to ignite their passions, continues to be in their prayers, they continue to light candles at the altar for him.
His death created a vacuum. Chavismo needed a new leadership, but it did not exist. The enemy was waiting for such an opportunity, it unleashed a violent war with full fury. With Chavez no longer at the helm, the enemy thought that it needed only a push to demolish Chavismo. But it was wrong. Chavez remained alive even after his death, and he continues to be the unifying element in the people’s resistance that continues to this day.
How to fill the vacuum left by Chavez? How was the vacuum in the leadership of the government, state, Bolivarian movement, the FANB, mass pedagogy to be filled? This was the task that Nicolas Maduro had to fulfill, when he became the President after Chavez. But leadership cannot be exercised by decree, it has to be won. Furthermore, Maduro had to perform these tasks in a situation where the enemy launched three violent attacks on his presidency within a space of four years. These assaults brutally bruised the economy, badly damaging all the gains of the revolution, while also worsening the historical problems of the Venezuelan economy, such as corruption.
Maduro is not Chavez. It is absurd to pretend otherwise. Nor is there Madurismo. But Maduro has displayed amazing leadership qualities, the clearest example being his call for the convening of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017 when the country was going down a confrontationist path from which it appeared there would be no return. Maduro redirected the country down the democratic way, demonstrating that he was a brilliant strategist, and was more able than the opposition. Responding to Maduro’s call, Chavismo closed ranks around Maduro, ensuring his victory in the strategic battle. As Maradona, the legendary Argentinian footballer, described it, in times of crisis, we are all soldiers.
How much should be asked of the leadership? Maduro is not Chavez, it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to perform the exemplary leadership role that Chavez played. Now that Chavez is not there, it is Chavismo that has to fulfill that role. Chavismo means all the various players in Venezeula, acting in unison. These include the parties, movements, communes, FANB, intellectuals – they must all come together to defend the revolution and advance it. The opposition wants to focus all attention on Maduro, to vilify him, to put the blame for all the problems on his leadership, and thereby launch a campaign to unseat him from the presidency and replace him with an opposition leader. They had done this with Chavez, they are doing it now with Maduro.
It is of course necessary to build leadership, one that is respected by the people and carries authority. This is particularly important at a time when there is a huge leadership vacuum in Venezuela, and when the country is facing a war from within and without, which has brought to the fore all the negative tendencies that had been overcome during the Chavez years. However, these tendencies had not completely gone away, that takes a very long time, and they have increased in a big way again, such as benefiting oneself at the cost of society.
Chavismo is a heterogeneous, multiclass movement, ranging from the peasantry, the native Indians and city slum dwellers to the new entrepreneurial class. It is to the credit of Maduro that he has been able to consolidate his leadership within these diverse ranks of Chavismo, which is why there was a broad acceptance to his appointment as the Chavismo candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. On the other hand, it is also true that within the not so diehard supporters of Chavismo, or those supporters of Chavismo who have become disillusioned with it because of the economic crisis, or among the ordinary people who were watching the struggle from the sidelines and were never very passionate about social change, Maduro’s authority is being questioned. All these sections of society have come to believe in the propaganda war being waged by the domestic opposition with the help of its international supporters, that the economic crisis has it roots in Chavismo, that Chavismo is fundamentally incapable of leading the country out of the economic crisis.
Chavismo needs a leadership having the authority and acceptability and charisma of a Chavez. Venezuela needs such a leadership. It was the titanic leadership of Chavez, his capacity to unify the country and guide it down the revolutionary path, that enabled the revolutionary process to advance in Venezuela, an advance that no one had predicted till it actually took place. Now that Chavez is no longer there, it would be foolhardy to expect another Chavez to come on the scene and advance the revolution. The new President is trying his best, but ultimately, the revolutionary advance will now depend on the conscious actions of all of us, the the believers in Chavismo, the many Chavismos that we all are.
Are we all Chavez ?