The masses make history, but particular charismatic men and women can play a pivotal role, especially when they believe in the people and mobilize the masses to take action on their own behalf. Hugo Chávez was one of those rare revolutionary leaders. He was especially important for Latin America and the Third World for taking the baton from Fidel Castro in Cuba of being a loud, fearless, and vocal opponent of Yankee imperialism. He was the extreme left of the “pink tide” in South America of new democratic governments that began to dot the continent in the early 2000s. Without his presence, most of those other leaders would certainly have moved even more to the center-left. Under him, Venezuela empowered workers and the poor in ways that no other government was doing, while most governments were gleefully beholden to the 1%ers. That’s why they — and the mainstream media who are their lapdogs — hated him.
On a world-historical scale, Chávez was of enormous significance because he and his Bolivarian Movement put revolutionary socialism back onto the global agenda. Chávez was first elected as Venezuelan president in 1999. The Zapatista guerillas with the iconic Subcomandante Marcos had emerged from the Chiapas jungles in 1994 and inspired some new hope. But the world was still reeling from the collapse of “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc in 1991. The “end of history” (in bourgeois parliamentarianism) and “there is no alternative” (to capitalism) were the hegemonic notions in political and intellectual circles wherever one looked. Neo-liberalism seemed triumphant, in spite of all the suffering it was causing to the earth’s wretched majority. Then, seemingly bursting out of nowhere but actually, as we began to learn, out of a long tradition of struggle against neo-liberalism in Venezuela, came Hugo Chávez, a man incorporating in his physiognomy all the colors of the hemisphere and a highly gifted orator.
Venezuelan “Socialism for the 21st Century” was always a project lacking in definition — and to define it better and fulfill its promise remains the task for revolutionaries in Venezuela. Reactionaries and imperialists are waiting to exploit any factional disputes in the post-Chávez era. However, more than details or a blueprint about how capitalism could be transcended, a mythic vision — or what Alain Badiou calls a “Truth” — was what was needed in those very dark times at the end of the last century. Hugo provided it. He told it like it is. Who will ever forget his amazing truth-telling from the podium at the United Nations when he talked about the smell of sulfur leftover from “El Diablo” Bush’s appearance on the previous day and held up a book by Chomsky to recommend for the clapping UN delegates to read? The man will be greatly missed.
Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.