I have this vivid image in my mind of Hugo Chavez pushing through various handlers of assorted powerful people in order to get on stage at the UN General Assembly and recommend Noam Chomsky's latest book. I picture a boyish gaze as he famously hands Barack Obama a copy of "The Open Veins of Latin America." Chavez was drunk on ideas. I remember the feeling of radicalization. The difference being, of course, when I began to give heed to such ideas my main concerns were rent and beer money. Chavez was the leader of one of the most oil-rich nations in the world.
I met Alan Woods, who was an informal adviser of sorts to Chavez, a few years ago in Italy. I was there for a organizational congress (we were part of the same political tendency), and had a chance to hear him talk a few times about Chavez. He would mention all the achievements of course, but he'd always temper them with an aside like, "well, Chavez is no Marxist..." I took that to mean he's still learning. Not in the sense that, yes, we're all still learning and that's a good thing, but in the sense that he still believes you can somehow reconcile the thick contradictions ripe within private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. For all this talk about Chavez the strongman, which in many respects is true, he appeared to have a somewhat bizarre faith in good old enlightenment values. He seemed unaware that these once revolutionary ideas can be shaped and perverted into freedom of speech being interpreted as freedom to buy political office. Freedom, liberty- words that have long been slogans for commodities- need a rebranding. If we simply apply them to the structures of the state as is, they are often tools of manipulation.
I'm not suggesting Chavez was naive. (Certainly anyone who has been on both ends of a coup has learned to watch his back.) I'm also not suggesting he was ineffective. (Chavez was able to reduce poverty to such an extent he is assured to be remembered as one of the best leaders of our time among a large swath of the world's population.) I do, however, think he was indecisive. At least when it came to the big question. He sat on the revolution too long. There is likely a million reasons why, but you can't wait capital out. You have to, as they say, strike while the iron's hot. From the oil fields to the grocery shelves, they have fought Chavez. They will trade short-term profit for long-term power every time.They don't feel the national, or Bolivarian, pride that teemed within Chavez. They would have a million slum-dwelling children die ten times over before they would allow any fundamental change in the system that offers them so much privilege. Despite the boisterous rhetoric, deep-down Chavez seemed to believe he could appeal to them. Instead of replacing the corrupt state, he built parallel structures. This allowed much of the "old crap" to remain.
That said, running a revolution is fucking hard. The negative obituaries by the usual suspects are proof enough of his legacy. He scared the right people. He gave power to people who never had it before. The hard part is now. We have to finish with what Chavez was unable to.