Update: Chavez has very disturbingly expressed support for the "Libyan Government" as Gaddafi massacres the Libyan people...
Below is my original article from Feb. 6th...
The revolt in Egypt is a test for Hugo Chavez and the American left...
As I scanned over articles about the revolution under way in Egypt, one article in particular caught my attention. It was an article discussing the reaction of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the situation in Egypt. You can find the article in question here...
What I found particular interesting about the article was Chavez’s clear effort to avoid taking a side in the conflict in Egypt. Chavez was quick to condemn U.S. meddling in Egypt, an easy (and correct) position to take as one of the most pronounced voices of anti-imperialism in the world. But clearly Chavez found it more difficult to distance himself from Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps his must disturbing comment was his suggestion that the U.S. should have extended a visa to Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed former dictator of Tunisia, whose ouster by pro-democracy forces in January set off the events in Egypt. Note too, Chavez’s two buddies in the region, which he mentions consulting on the situation in Egypt, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, leaders of regimes equally as autocratic as that of Egypt’s. As the article suggests, it should come as little surprise since Chavez has worked hard to present himself as “pro-Arab, opposed to the policies of Israel and the United States”. Chavez’s anti-imperialism is admirable, but his embrace of some of the world’s most brutal rulers, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, in an attempt to construct a global counter to U.S. power is not.
I scanned over the Internet for further comments by Chavez on the situation in Egypt to no avail. I found this perhaps slightly surprising given Chavez’s proclivity to express his opinion on a wide variety of matters, especially international politics. But it than occurred to me that the situation in Egypt could be seen as a test of Chavez’s true motivations and intentions regarding the “Bolivarian Revolution”. Latin America’s left turn over the course of the last decade has been exciting for anyone committed to social and economic justice and the empowerment of the working class. The elections of Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and to a lessor extent (with major graduations) Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva (an his successor Dilma Rousseff) in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, the Kirchners in Argentina, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Mauricio Funes in El Salavador where major steps forward for a region that only two decades ago was dominated by right-wing authoritarian regimes propped up by the United States. It proved that the left could contest for power electoral with great success. The attempted coups in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and unfortunately the successful coup in Honduras, which were the right’s response to the left’s electoral success, proved definitively, that at least in the Latin American context, it is the right that is the quickest to abandon democratic principal and resort to repressive violence in their struggle to keep elites in power. But winning state power through elections is far short of the revolutionary transformation so desperately needed in the region and across the global. To be sure the lot of the working class and the most marginalized (peasants, indigenous communities, women) has improved substantial as a result of Latin America’s left turn. Economic growth has been impressive with GDPs up and unemployment and poverty down. In places like Venezuela policies like higher minimum wages and various programs to re-invest the nation’s oil wealth into the countries poorest communities has resulted in concrete gains for the majority of citizens. But the situation in Venezuela is illustrative of how this has been achieved by many of the left learning governments in the region. 50% of government revenues and 90% of export earnings are dependent on the countries oil resources. This dependence on one major natural resources has allowed the state to improve life conditions for the countries poor majority, but is a precarious asset on which to peg the nation’s future. In the meantime, class relations, social structure, and concentrations of wealth and power have hardly been effected by the “Bolivarian Revolution.”*
After scanning the net for more comments by Chavez on the situation in Egypt, I decided to see if Evo Morales in Bolivia had anything to say on the matter. Evo Morales, though often portrayed as Chavez junior partner in Latin America’s left turn, is in some ways perhaps a more revolutionary figure than Chavez. Morales is Bolivia’s first Indigenous president in a country in which Native Americans constitute 55% of the population, the highest percentage in Latin America. He comes directly out of a mass movement of peasant coca farmers unlike Chavez who was a product of the military. Not surprisingly, I found nothing in regards to Morales’s thoughts on the situation in Egypt. Unlike Chavez, Morales is a quiet man, normally content to focus on what he knows best, the plight of his country’s poor farmers. But I did run across something interesting that had escaped my attention. In December Morales, the man who has been one of the world’s leading critics of neo-liberalism, attempt to impose serious austerity measures that would have had a devastating impact on the countries impoverished majority. Morales removed subsidies on fuel, sugar and flour, leading to steep increases in the price of gasoline and basic foodstuffs. He was forced to back down from his decision only after major protests by poor coca growers the very people that brought him to power.** What this reveals, is something that remains the greatest weakness of Latin America’s left turn. Much like the social forum movement which was both a product of and inspiration for the left victories in the region, the contemporary Latin American left (and the left worldwide for that matter) is defined by what it is against. The left turn was a rejection of the neo-liberal model of economic development. In the words of the social forum...”another world is possible.” This was an important and necessary breakthrough in the era of American triumphalism that followed the end of the cold war under which the “end of history” was declared and any possibility of opposition to militant neo-liberalism was unthinkable. The Latin American left shattered that illusion, but unfortunately, the movement never got around to providing many concrete details about what the other world should look like or on what basis it wold be built. Such aversion to utopian scheming was in many ways healthy, a reaction to so many failed 20th century revolutions. But without a positive vision - without a clear concept of what you are for, not just what you are against, it is impossible to move from critique to construction of that alternative.
Chavez’s Bolivarian Revoultion has been one of the greatest casualties of this. At the center of the problem of the movement in Venezuela has been its focus on Chavez as its messiah. Yes, the Bolivarian movement has at its base a network of unions, peasant groups and other popular organizations, but I think it is undeniable that the energy and focus of the movement has been largely top down. If this was not the case, if the movement was truly bottom up, built on mass popular organizations with deep roots in the Venezuelan working class - organizations so democratic that they regularly produce a mass cadre of organic leaders, who at the same time, are total beholden to their movement’s rank-and-file, their would no need for Chavez to continue as Venezuela's president indefinitely to maintain his revolution.*** For the movement to reach real maturity as a revolutionary movement it must eclipse Chavez the man. But the reality is, the Bolivarian movement is still too much of a cult of personality. And Chavez himself has never seemed to be able to decide if wants to really advance something new, a “21st century socialism”, or grasp on to failed models of the past, like Castro’s Cuba which he so admires.
Let me be clear here. I am not suggesting that Chavez is a dictator in any way, shape or form. Unlike the mainstream press in the United States which has never acted more like a apparatus of the U.S. State Department than when it comes to their reporting on Venezuela. Indeed, their is probably no other leader in the world that has been more democratically chosen by his nation's people than Hugo Chavez. Chavez, and his party have won free and fair elections over a half dozen times in the past 12 years, and survived an attempted coup, only because of the Venezuelan people’s feverant support for him. No U.S. president in recent years has near the claim to type of popularity and democratic legitimacy as Chavez has been able to maintain in Venezuela despite serious challenges. But Chavez popularity and more than numerous electoral victories do not alter the fact that he has pursued changes in the countries Constitution and laws (a constitution he lead the country in writing) that threaten elements of Venezuela's democracy.**** And what are Chavez intentions for the future of his movement? Does he really believe the Bolivarian Revolution requires a life time presidency, even if comes with a popular stamp of approval every six years?
This brings me back to original point. Does Chavez’s position on the Egyptian revolution reveal something about his concept of the way forward, of the future of the struggle for global social transformation? Chavez’s international alliances have been the most disturbing aspect of his politics. Chavez was one of the first to recognize the “victory” of Ahmadinejad in Iran after the fraudulent elections of 2009, squarely placing himself on the side of the oppressors against that of the oppressed. The situation in Egypt is even more interesting. As a U.S. ally, the Mubarak regime in Egypt would seem a natural enemy of Chavez, but even in this circumstance, it seems Chavez is uncomfortable fully embracing the masses from below who are challenging the secular, nationalist, corporatist dictatorship of Mubarak. If Chavez is truly committed to a global movement of working class empowerment from below, rather than the creation of his own left-corporatist autocracy in Venezuela, why should he seem reluctant to advocate for Mubarak’s overthrow, or distance himself from the Gaddafis, the Assads, and the Ahmadinejads of the world, and instead embrace the burgeoning freedom movements in each of these countries.
This is not merely a test for Chavez but also for the U.S. left which has beaitified Chavez in their desperate longing to grasp on to any force that represents an counter to U.S. global hegemony. Much of the U.S. left considers even the slightest critique of Chavez or that matter Morales as beyond the pale, pure treason. So far the same left has embraced whole heatedly the revolt in Egypt. It must seem odd than that St. Chavez has not been as ready to join them in their demonstrations of solidarity. It is also worth noting that the U.S. left’s enthusiasm for the Green Movement in Iran was much less pronounced and Chavez’s non-existent. Anti-imperialism is again a position in the negative. Yes, U.S. global domination must be resisted, but a positive movement of global workers solidarity must be the ultimate goal. Simple being opposed to U.S. power does not automatically guarantee a just society - Iran is the perfect case in point.
Of course it is beyond anyone’s predication at this moment what direction the Egyptian revolution itself will take. The U.S. political establishment is busy stirring up fears of an Egyptian theocracy, rooted in the power of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Comparisons between the situation in Egypt and the events leading to the 1979 revolution in Iran is a persistent theme of commentaries on all the mainstream news programs. But despite the similarities there are vast differences between the two situations. One of the most interesting developments in the last few days was the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction to Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statement that the events in Tunisia and Egypt were an “Islamic awakening”, inspired by the example of Iran’s 1979 revolution and the theocracy that has ruled Iran since. The Muslim Brotherhood explicit rejected Khamenei’s view as soon as he issued his statement. In their own statement, the Muslim Brotherhood stated “The MB regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution”. This indicates that even the Islamists in Egypt recognize that Egyptians desire for real democracy will not allow for the substitution of a secular autocracy for a religious one. It also indicates the rulers in Iran are desperate to ensure that Iranians don’t recognize the obvious affinity between the Egyptian pro-democracy protesters and Iran’s Green Movement. It’s beyond a doubt that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have shook up the region and the world and challenged all sorts of long held political certainties.
The reality is the movement in Egypt is pleasantly leaderless, but also, to this point, founded purely on a negative - Mubarak’s removal from power. Those of us who find the revolution in Egypt, and its rapidly expanding ripples throughout the region exciting, are eagerly waiting to see what positive content the movement generates. What type of society do the masses in Egypt want to replace the Mubarak regime? This is yet to be determined. But what is abundantly clear is that this is a revolt from below that deserves our whole hearted support. But I wonder, where is Hugo Chavez’s heart?
* For an insightful analysis of the true state of the Venezuelan state and the Bolivarian process see the following link...http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/5615
** For info on Morales attempted austerity measures see the following link...http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iZxViZHqh0-3g9b03iyC9vrum8zA?docId=a8d2c0973083417e9d5c2204c39dee16
*** An interesting sideline, the electoral victory of Lula da Silva in Brazil, unlike Chavez’s in Venezuela was more bottom up in the sense that is was a more organic development, the result of years of organizing and base building by the Workers Party and the Brazilian labor movement. Indeed, this is in part the reason the electoral victories have outlived Lula himself and the baton has been passed on to Dilma Rousseff. Unfortunately, Lula’s government in Brazil could hardly be called revolutionary and Chavez has moved much further in reconstruct society in Venezuela in favor of the working class than Lula did in Brazil.
**** See the following links for more info on Chavez’s less than democratic political maneuvers...http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/venezuela/report-2010
Of course it is worth noting political and human rights are much, much better in Venezuela than they are in neighboring Colombia, the U.S. most significant ally in the region. Yet the mainstream press in the U.S. hammers Chavez for real and perceived human rights failings while remaining largely silent about the serious human rights violations in Colombia.