Africa can learn from the legacy of Chávez
2013-04-10, Issue 625
Whilst Latin America underwent what was dubbed a ‘pink’ revolution in the 1990s and the decade of the noughties, Africa continued with its spineless neo-colonial leaders despite the crop of seeming charismatic and young leaders such as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who all initially emerged in the mid 1990s as a ‘new generation’ of leaders. As Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem expressed, they represented ‘a fresh approach to leadership... They spoke with confidence and inspired many Africans and friends of Africa that an ‘African solution to African problems’ was indeed a reality.’  Needless to say, false hope dawned in Africa and these leaders did not quite live up to the expectations of some of us. The reality is that none of them – nor the rest of the African leaders in the remaining 51 states of the continent - have had the political audacity, will or vision to defy latter day manifestations of empire and savage neoliberalism in a similar manner to Commandante Hugo Chávez.
LEARNING FROM PRAXIS
What can Africa’s present generation of young people learn from Hugo Chávez and the achievements of 14 years of his government? By ‘learn’, it should not be parrot fashion learning, nor should an exporting of revolutions be perceived as the intention, but a political praxis that seeks to look critically and pragmatically at African contexts. It should be a political praxis inspired by examples from other nations in the global South seeking to transform their realities towards the ideals of socio-economic and political justice, devising a theory and practice according to socio-cultural, economic and political realities of Africa. For some time Africa was encouraged to look to the Asian tiger economies as models of economic development which were deemed to be ‘economic miracles.’ They were clearly wedded to neo-liberal capitalist development and Africa has faithfully followed such models over the last 20-30 years with little wealth, if any, trickling down to the masses through the invisible hand of the market.
There are lessons Africa can learn from the reignited Bolívarian project of Chávez. He sought to advance and realise the vision of the 19th century revolutionary leader of Venezuela, Simón Bolívar who began the struggle to free Latin America from Spanish colonial rule and unite South and Central America and the Caribbean into what he called Greater Columbia at the time. Chávez sought to free Venezuela and Latin America from both the doctrines and practices of neoliberalism and imperialism in support of genuine autonomous socio-economic and political development for the peoples of Latin America. Therefore, Chávez turned his back on neoliberalism around the time when the doctrine of neoliberal hegemony was becoming discredited. Since the financial and economic crisis of 2008 this model has become even more questionable despite the fact that the world’s minority oligarchy cling to a capitalist system that is in severe crisis. The government of Chávez decided to utilise the resources of society, that is, oil to redistribute to the poor majority who had been socially and economically disadvantaged and marginalised in the society. Through state nationalisation the massive social welfare programmes he introduced in his country , that is, schools, new roads, literacy programmes, hospitals built, profoundly and positively changed his country. For example in eleven years Venezuela saw the construction of ten new universities. Currently the country has the least income inequality in South America. His government halved the poverty rate by two thirds during his 14 years in office.
His government by no means totally eradicated poverty in the country but remarkably it has made it a less unequal society through significant reductions in the income gap. Which African leader since the mid-1990s to date has been politically audacious to turn their back on the neoliberal capitalist model for a more people-orientated socio-economic system? With the enormous untapped mineral resources of many African countries and newfound oil in several, the reality is no African leader has had a similar ideological commitment to Chávez to utilize the resources of their nation for the interests of the poor. They have held fast to neo-colonial relationships and phallocratic ambitions such as joint military training exercises under the auspices of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) that have been carried out by several male African governments such as Zenawi, Museveni, Kagame and others. Chávez described the Bolívarian revolutionary process as an ‘anti-neoliberal revolutionary project.’  It was a ‘humanist, self-governing, fundamentally endogenous economic model that is not isolationist, and that is able to satisfy its people’s basic needs but where human development is more important than economic development.’  During his short life, the radical leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara indicated that he had ‘the courage to turn [his] back’ against conformity. He dared ‘to invent the future’, to ‘carry out fundamental change,’ but was not given the chance by neo-colonial forces who killed him. To date very few African governments, if any, have succeeded in satisfying the basic needs of the vast majority of their people.
RESTATING SOCIALISM AS AN ETHICAL SYSTEM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Second, Chavez put socialism as a word and project back on the trajectory of human possibility. This is significant on account of the fact that since 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, detractors and imperialist neocons have vociferously and joyously declared TINA – ‘There is No Alternative’ to capitalism.
However, integral to Chávez’ commitment to socialism and use of the word that had been hitherto malevolently tarnished was his distinguishing it from its Stalinist and Soviet deformed variants. He made this distinction by characterising it as ‘21st century socialism.’ Yet, it was not a textbook socialism, for Chávez never defined himself as a Marxist but as a revolutionary and Bolívarian. 
He demonstrated that another world is possible; that we can re-imagine human beings and seek to harness wealth and redistribute it in the interests of the 99 per cent of society rather than the one per cent; that this is an ethical, just, humane system that strives to reorganise society around people and not profits. That system was to be avowedly socialist in definition, spirit and construction. As Chávez put it: ‘For our part, we are trying to move slowly but surely toward an economic alternative to dehumanized capitalism.’ 
Third, his uncompromising anti-imperialism earned him contempt and demonization in Washington and other Western capitals. Similarly, which African leader or country has unequivocally taken an anti-imperialist stance using what many journalists and government officials in the West term as ‘colourful’ or ‘undiplomatic language’? Such euphemisms conceal their discomfort and hostility to the Commandante. However, he was opposed to the military invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Chávez rejected the Bush-Obama doctrine of employing ‘state terror to fight terror’ for he believed in political solutions to problems. He condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza.
In 2003, the year in which the US launched its invasion of Iraq, the American empire had 200,000 troops in 144 countries around the world.  Today, America as leader of the imperialist triad ( comprising the US, Europe and Japan) has the largest military spending in the world; has invaded more countries as William Blum records in his ‘Rogue State’ - all in the name of bringing democracy to those around the world that it perceives as in need of democracy or ‘regime change.’  Simón Bolívar once observed: ‘The US seems destined by providence to infest America with misery in the name of liberty.’ It is evident that that dangerous and arrogant ‘infestation’ has spread to the rest of the world since Bolivar made such a prescient declaration. Neither did Chavez mince his words. For example, before the UN in September 2006, he famously referred to the then US President, George W. Bush as ‘the devil.’ With a gleam in his eye, Chávez said: ‘The Devil is right at home. The Devil himself is right in the house. … And the Devil came here yesterday. .. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulphur still today. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer to as the Devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly. As the owner of the world.’  Since 2006 the corridors of the UN continue to harbour the stench of sulphur.
REGIONAL INDEPENDENCE AND INTEGRATION
Four, Chávez took a very independent direction in regards to Venezuela’s foreign policy, though the country continued to sell oil to America. He could not entirely ‘de-link’ Venezuela from the global capitalist economy. This independent direction drew ideological inspiration from Simón Bolívar in which the Liberator sought to form one political body including South and Central America as well as the Caribbean to negotiate and represent the region to the rest of the world in a powerful pole. Linked to this independent foreign policy was Chávez’ fifth legacy of deepening regional unity within Latin America and extending it to encompass the Caribbean.
Chávez’ establishment of the Bolívarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (or in Spanish: Alianza Bolívariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or ALBA) launched in 2004, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) formed in December 2011, and Venezuela’s joining of Mercosur in December 2012 sought to forge greater self-determination in economic and political relations outside the scope of Washington’s power in the FTAA. They are also in defiance of the Monroe doctrine of 1823 that served as a pretext for Washington’s intervention in the region that continued in the twentieth century.
This spirit of a genuinely independent foreign policy stance was demonstrated in the response of Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, to the US administration seeking to renew their military base in his country. Correa responded that the US could lease a military base in Ecuador when America allowed Ecuador to lease a military base in Miami. This is the type of response that Djibouti’s President Ismael Omar Guelleh could have given the American administration but instead he decided to allow his tiny yet geo-strategic country to host the only US military base in Africa at Camp Lemonnier in 2003. With approximately 2,500 military and civilian personnel and US Department Defense contractors, the camp is the base of operations for AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa. It continues to remain a dangerous military threat to the African continent.
Chávez’ call for greater regional integration parallels that of one of Africa’s illustrious champions of Pan-Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah, whose relentless and impassioned call for ‘Africa Must Unite’ into a continental union government of Africa in which Africans would coordinate their economic, human and technological resources for the betterment of its people rather than foreign interests remains an unfinished project for Africans committed to social and economic transformation in Africa. Similarly Nkrumah called for Africa to unite militarily for he considered it senseless for Africa to have myriad armies. Hence, he envisioned Africans creating an ‘African High Command’ whose objectives were to defeat imperialism, neo-colonialism and the further balkanisation of the continent. Little known is the fact that Nkrumah also called for the creation of a body that he referred to as the ‘Organisation of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America’ (OSPAAL) that would ‘provide an organic link with the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America who are struggling against imperialism.’  Nkrumah was consistently committed to a united Africa that comprised all her descendants. He stated that: ‘All peoples of African descent, whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any part of the world are Africans and belong to the African nation.’  He was unequivocal in calling for ‘the total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African socialist government [to] be the primary objective of all Black revolutionaries throughout the world.’  Like Chávez, Nkrumah was a committed internationalist and believed that ‘the African revolutionary struggle is not an isolated one. It not only forms part of the world socialist revolution, but must be seen in the context of the Black Revolution as a whole.’  Like Chávez he was committed to the ending of global injustice and socio-economic apartheid. It is the adoption and realisation of this vision by Africa’s contemporary leaders that is lacking today. As Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem poignantly spelt out, the reality remains that ‘the collective African experience is that we can only be ourselves and we need each other to counter the threat of marginalisation, rapacious globalisation and the consolidation of whatever little gains may have been accomplished in a number of African countries. No one [African] country can be a sustainable miracle if its neighbours are in hell.’ 
GREATER COOPERATION BETWEEN AFRICA, SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA
As Nkrumah reached out to Latin America, Chávez did likewise and reached out to Africa for a forging of closer links. This is his sixth legacy. Due to severe illness he was prevented from attending the February 2013 Third Africa-South America Summit (ASA) held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, which was attended by 63 countries. Two previous meetings were held in Nigeria in 2006 and Venezuela in 2009. In his open letter, read by his Foreign Minister, Elías Jaua Milano, Chávez called for both regions to unite in order to become a ‘true pole of power.’ Furthermore, he said: ‘It’s in our continents, where enough natural, political and historic resources are found…to save the planet from the chaos it’s been driven towards [by the capitalist system].’ 
Chávez’ reaching out to Africa is grounded in the fact that he is of mixed ancestry – African and indigenous blood. He stated in a radio interview with KPFA Pacifica Radio interviewer Margaret Prescod the following:
‘When we were children we were told that we have a motherland and that motherland was Spain. However, we have discovered later in our lives as a matter of fact we have several motherlands. And one of the greatest motherlands of all is no doubt Africa. We love Africa. And every day we are much more aware of the roots we have in Africa. Also, America is our motherland… Bolivar use to say we are a new human race in Latin America, that we are not Europeans, nor Africans, nor North Americans. That we are a mixture of all these races. And that there is no doubt that Africa resounds with a pulse, like a thousand drums and happiness and joy, but also there is a lot of pain when we think of Africa.’ 
The Venezuelan elite in their racist views had contempt for Chávez who was defined as a ‘zambo’ (of mixed ancestry). As they privately owned some of the TV networks they portrayed him as a monkey. Hence, the racial dynamic in Venezuela is only one aspect of the political opposition and personal animosity towards Chávez demonstrated by the Venezuelan oligarchy.
The strengthening of cultural, economic, social and political links between the continent of Africa and ‘Afro-Latinos’ in a similar manner to the existing strong ties (in terms of travel, businesses, etc) between African Americans and the motherland is necessary. The issue of linguistic imperialism, that is, of the colonial languages of the former colonial powers of Central and South America as well as Africa should be overcome in not only the importance of translation facilities but all human beings becoming multi-lingual to communicate in a globalised world.
CONNECTION WITH THE MASSES
Chávez’ positive leadership skills in terms of communication with ordinary people is a seventh positive legacy. As Oscar Guardiola-Rivera claims:
‘He wrote, he read, and mostly he spoke… He spoke publicly an average of 40 hours per week. As president, he didn't hold regular cabinet meetings; he'd bring the many to a weekly meeting, broadcast live on radio and television. Aló, Presidente, the programme in which policies were outlined and discussed, had no time limits, no script and no teleprompter. One session included an open discussion of healthcare in the slums of Caracas, rap, a self-critical examination of Venezuelans being accustomed to the politics of oil money and expecting the president to be a magician, a friendly exchange with a delegation from Nicaragua and a less friendly one with a foreign journalist.’ 
In short, Chávez walked the walk and certainly, like Fidel Castro, could talk the talk. He was a genuinely people-orientated leader and connected with the humblest sections of Venezuelan society by communicating in a mode ordinary Venezuelans understood.
He also possessed humility and realism as he recognised and accepted that inefficiency, corruption, shortages in the economy and the high crime rate were persistent problems that had yet to be eradicated in the society. As Marta Harnecker who interviewed Chávez writes: ‘Chávez doesn’t think he has clear and precise solutions for all the problems that trouble the global Left. He recognises he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is convinced that some basic values should guide him and that he will develop many of his positions along the way.’ 
BELIEF IN PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY
His commitment as a teacher to creating a constitutional order that was responsive to the popular electorate is the eighth lesson. Therefore, he invited a continuous dialogue with the poor, the unemployed, and workers – those that the Venezuelan plutocrats despised. He considered that for radical transformation to take place, ordinary people needed to be organised and conscientized. To put it differently, he understood that for there to be a mobilisation of people, it required a mobilisation of the minds of ordinary people. He was relentless in calling for Venezuelan citizens to play an active role in the construction of a new society; to organise themselves through the initiatives of self-managed community spaces, workers’ co-operatives, student councils and peasant councils in decentralized structures. With the death of Chávez the challenge remains for these structures to maintain their autonomy and continue to organise towards the ideals of the Bolívarian revolution of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (in Spanish, the PSUV).
There are some on the political Left who have allegedly read and studied the humanities and social sciences but are devoid of humaness or the African philosophy of ubuntu towards others. Chávez connected with the humanity of ordinary people in the favelas and it was they who voted him into office on three occasions. Like Jean Bertrand-Aristide of Haiti who won two free and fair democratic elections, both leaders became the most vilified democratically elected presidents in world history. In both countries the rich minority (along with Western governments and corporate interests) loathed them on account of the fact they represented the interests of the feared majority of society and threatened the neoliberal system that enriched this small oligarchy. Both spoke truth to the power and the powerless. Both leaders faced coup d’etats orchestrated by Uncle Sam to the North.
CHÁVEZ’ LEGACY MUST BE ADVANCED
What does the death of Hugo Chávez mean for the global South? It heralds an intensification of the struggle against neoliberalism, new configurations of imperialism and domination in the form of global apartheid. It heralds a strengthening of South to South solidarity and practical economic and political alliances among ordinary people alongside their social movements. This will advance the realisation of another world is possible in the form of Bolívarianism alongside a future Pan-Africanism that delivers peace and socio-economic justice to African people. It heralds for struggling Africans and the dispossessed all over the global South to take inspiration from the achievements of Venezuela in the midst of capitalist economic crisis. Chávez not only represented that another world is possible. In his short life, he made an immense contribution to this realisation. However, the struggle in the global South must continue to keep alive and advance his tremendous legacy.
1. ‘Does Meles think he’s Africa’s George Bush?’ in ‘Speaking Truth to Power Selected Pan-African Postcards of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem,’ Pambazuka Press, p. 48.
2. ‘Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution Hugo Chávez talks to Marta Harnecker’, Monthly Press, 2005, p. 116.
3. Ibid, p. 116.
4. ‘Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution Hugo Chávez talks to Marta Harnecker’, Monthly Press, 2005, p. 12. See also ‘Tariq Ali: Hugo Chávez and me’ in The Guardian, 6 March 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/06/hugo-chavez-and-me-tariq-ali?INTCMP=SRCH
5. ‘Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution Hugo Chávez talks to Marta Harnecker,’ p.117.
6. ‘New Internationalist,’ January 2003
7. ‘Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower’ by W. Blum, Zed Books, 2006.
8. Hugo Chávez’ memorable moments: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-20712033
9. ‘Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare’ by K. Nkrumah, Panaf Books, 1968, p. 57.
10. ‘Class Struggle in Africa’ by K. Nkrumah, Panaf Books 1970, p. 88.
11. Ibid, Class Struggle p. 88.
12. Ibid, p. 87.
13. Cited in ‘The African Union’ by T. Murithi, Ashgate 2005, p.8-9.
17. ‘Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution Hugo Chávez talks to Marta Harnecker,’ p.12.
* Ama Biney (Dr) is the Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News.
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