When we reflect on the death of a historically significant figure we measure them at their peak. So, when considering Hugo Chavez, we can dispel the disturbing images of the end – a cancer ridden warrior struggling to cling to life with his enemies cynically wishing him along to the grave. We see instead Chavez, the hero of the resistance movement to neoliberalism. Chavez, the revolutionary, committed to the democratic road. And most importantly, Chavez, the figure who carried the hopes and dreams of millions of poor and working class all over the world wishing to strike out to create a better future for all.
More than anything, Hugo Chavez was a teacher. A teacher with a classroom that extended throughout the globe. He taught us that the blind rage of the class war alone could not bring significant change. The revolution needs to be organized. It requires tactics. And patience. And, above all, it can only move as fast as the people who are making it are willing to go – no small group can force the engine of revolution to move at a speed they desire.
Chavez taught us that this old road of enlightened minority rule – a road with so many tragedies authored by leftists – was dead. He taught us this by example during the failed military coup of 1992. The greatness of Chavez as a teacher came from his ability to learn so much from his own mistakes and to teach so many in the process.
He taught us by persistently challenging his opponents – whether in Venezuela or Washington – by using the weapon of democracy. Time and again, the enemies of the Bolivarian revolution attempted to delegitimize his presidency and time and again he proved willing to face the cleansing and unpredictable force of the popular vote.
His tool was the ballot and not the gun. This distinguished him from both his opponents in the present – who proved willing to sanction the killing of an Iraqi or an Afghani or a Palestinian in the name of democracy – and his leftist predecessors of the past who preached the poisoned gospel of the end justifying the means.
In this way, we can see the historical bridge that Chavismo served to create. This is not one that, as he in his own propagandistic way, claimed to stretch back to Simon Bolivar. Instead, it is one that served to reconnect the Latin American and, by extension, the Global Left to the project initiated by the first democratically elected Marxist in the world, Salvador Allende. Allende’s presidency marked a critical moment in world history where the promise of democracy made so long ago by slave holders and land owners was finally fulfilled. The reclaiming of democracy from the bottom up, was done by both Allende and Chavez not for the purpose of growing a new kind of “democratic” dictatorship, but to allow a democratic form of socialism to emerge.
Though Allende’s breakthrough was ultimately drowned in the blood of capitalist dictatorship, the breech into the system had already been made. Capitalism and democracy were no longer seen as the same thing. Democracy could belong to the people. It could be used to advance the cause of human development. It could be used to challenge the imperialists and to confront those who exploited others. In short, a democratic form of socialism could change the world. Chavez grew to understand both the potential of democratic socialism and offered an updated vision of it to millions of others.
As we think of the legacy of Hugo Chavez, think of the many ways in which his Presidency became an organic expression of the democratic will of the Venezuelan people. Think of the millions who were engaged in the local communal councils. Think of those employed in the self-owned and managed cooperatives. Those provided with housing using funds that, in the past, would have lined the pockets of the rich. Think of millions of people on the move – organized to vote for their own self-interest, mobilized to defend their democratic decisions and empowered to fight for a life with dignity, with equality and with justice.
Ultimately the life of Hugo Chavez challenges us to look at our own lives. To see in ourselves, as he saw in himself and other common people, the spark of humanity capable of changing the world. If Chavez initiated a new kind of socialism for the 21st century, he did so with the implicit understanding that it was not his movement to complete. He merely offered a glimpse into a future where the needs and desires of the people, regular people like us, are more important than those of the 1% who seek to rule the world. The world changing message offered by Hugo Chavez is that another future is possible and that future begins with us.
Viva Chavez! Viva Chavismo!