WHEN Hugo Chávez died on 5 March 2013, the Wall Street Journal announced his death thus: “Hugo Chávez, a former tank commander turned populist politician who used Venezuela’s oil riches to challenge the US with his fiery brand of socialism, died Tuesday …”
This is the enduring narrative from the north about the Venezuelan leader who was both an inspiration for the Left in Latin America and beyond, but also a convenient hate figure for his many detractors both within his country but especially the US.
The narrative read thus: what happened in Venezuela was about one man; that man had little or no right to government office (as a mere former tank commander); he was an economic populist running his country into the ground because he refused to follow policies imposed on his predecessors by Washington; and, as a result, his pursuit of an independent politics and foreign relations made him an enemy of the US wielding a dangerous “brand” of socialism.
Remarkably similar narratives could have applied to almost any of the leftwing leaders that have come to power since Latin America won the democracy that the region had been denied under US tutelage during the Cold War.
A key characteristic of the phenonemon of chavismo was the man himself, and in keeping with the western narratives that shape political science and analysis, this enabled those detractors to evoke the wearily familiar dangers of populism taken from the archives of rightwing opposition to popular democracy in the region.
What is important about George Ciccariello-Maher’s book, however, is that it describes the backdrop against which the Bolivarian Revolution – which gave rise to its foremost figurehead, Chávez, but cannot solely be dismissed as a populist experiment with him at its centre – unfolded and was consolidated. When Ciccariello-Maher wrote this book, Chávez was still alive, his physical presence and larger-than-life personality providing an obvious focus for the hostile US media but not one that they were ever able – or inclined – to get beyond.
We Created Chávez is an inspiring examination of social movements and revolutionary groups active before and then during the Chávez era, providing an essential history of the years of activism that preceded it.
The author writes: “Far too often, discussions of contemporary Venezuela revolve around the figure of the Venezuelan president. Whether from opponents on the conservative right or the anarchist left or supporters in between, the myopia is the same … But although Chávez is indeed important … the Bolivarian Revolution is not about Hugo Chávez. He is not the centre, not the driving force, not the individual revolutionary genius on whom the process as a whole relies or in whom it finds a quasi-divine inspiration.”
In short, says Ciccariello-Maher, Chávez did not make the revolution, the revolution made him.
The author proceeds from the starting point of a “people’s” history in which the Venezuelan president was merely one actor to emerge as the result of a process that began long before him in which Venezuela’s system of representative democracy grew increasingly rigid, exclusionary, corrupt and violent. This snapped in 1989 in the so-called Caracazo revolt, when the barrios exploded in a week-long riot that approximated a mass insurrection.
The author’s focus is both the people at the centre of this revolt but also what had come before: the book is the story of what happened bertween 1958 and 1989, which binds the Caracazo to Chávez’s failed coup of 1992 and eventual election in 1998.
Ciccariello-Maher proceeds by examining in three sections the guerrilla struggle, its failure and the seeds of subsequent political developments that this gave rise to in Venezuela; the complex mosaic of social movements that developed in the 1970s – students, women, Afro-indigenous groups – that organised and disciplined grassroots interests; and the “people” themselves, in this case the excluded mass of working class, peasant and lumpen groups that together became the crashing surf of the wave that would turn Venezuela on its head after 1989.
The historian concedes that his is a work of demythification that places the “people” firmly at the heart of Venezuelan history, making Chávez an effect, not a cause, of the Bolivarian Revolution.
This subterranean history has only recently emerged into the light of day. Would that it had been written a decade previously, and that the broader understanding of Venezuela’s revolution had accepted it as a popular rejection of an ancien regime propped up by Washington.
Had that been so, the US narratives that sought to reduce el pueblo into an inert onlooker dazzled by the ambition and charisma of yet another Latin American populist would have been rendered impotent, and the Chávez phenomenon itself may have been very different.