N.B. This blog post was written prior to the death of Hugo Chávez and some of the phrasing in the piece may not be up to date.
In recent months, I have been watching with deep fascination (and a bit of anxiousness) as Venezuela awaits news about the fate of the Chávez Presidency. For those who don’t know, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been receiving cancer treatment in Cuba since December 2012 and has not yet returned home. After spending seven months in Venezuela over the course of three years for my PhD research, the complexity of the Venezuelan situation and the possible risks of Chávez suddenly leaving office are vivid to me. Yet after having spent so much time with barrio-based activists and social movements, I am also aware that the work to be done in Venezuela is now far beyond the figure of Chávez. In fact, in his absence, the Venezuelan people – those who carry a vision for a society beyond the oppressive mechanisms of capitalism and who have struggled to ignite their own collective agency – might awaken to their true power.
Let me share how I come to this thinking. For the past 15 years I have been deeply interested in how ordinary, everyday people, and especially marginalised people, are able to change the world around them. Though I have a deep appreciation for symbolic heroes and heroines of social change, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, I am even more intrigued and inspired by the people behind them. Those unspoken heroes and heroines who rarely obtain glory but who toil away in the day-to-day work that is necessary to achieve lasting transformation for their societies.
For this reason, after years of working in a community organising network in the United States, I pursued a PhD that sought to investigate how the barrio residents of Venezuela are (becoming) agents of change in their own country. This required seeing past the dominant narrative of Chávez as the central figure of the Bolivarian Revolution. It even required recuperating the history of Venezuela to include the political and cultural work of the barrio residents, as most of the histories of the country are written as a litany of dictators and presidents.
Thus, my research and the on-the-ground experience living in the barrios of Caracas with social movements and activists revealed to me a complex web of social relationships and identities that characterize the Bolivarian Revolution. While the Western media market continues its fascination (one could say demonisation) of the Chávez Presidency, it fails, as a result, to recognise this complexity and leaves us all worse-off.
When Hugo Chávez won the Presidency in 1997, he opened the floodgates of a growing desire for social change that had been boiling in Venezuela since the late-1980s. Unlike other Latin American countries, Venezuela did not have a strong tradition of social movements (for a variety of reasons), so many grabbed on to the image, words and vision of Chávez as a guiding light for the direction of the country. In the years since, movements have emerged, community-based organisations have formed, and those who were previously marginalised from political and economic power (especially barrio residents) have developed a powerful voice and inserted themselves in national, and even continental, struggles. It cannot be ignored that many of these new forms of agency were catalysed, if not begun, by the Chávez government, resulting in movement identities that are often entangled with the figure of Chávez.
However, it would be erroneous to assume that these new agents of social struggle are wholly subsumed by the leadership of Chávez. On the contrary, the controversial president has more accurately served as a ‘space-holder’ for the multiplicity of competing interests on Venezuela’s lefts. He has created space at the level of national discourse and policy-making for the details of a Twenty-First Century Socialism to be debated and challenged and he has become a touchstone for those on the left who might otherwise fall to infighting. More importantly, Chávez’s presidency has inspired a new generation of everyday people—both young and old—to actively engage in the social struggles of the country.
As these people and their organisations have matured over the years, although Chávez continues to serve as an important symbol, there is more and more space for independent ideas, strategy and social relations that do not depend on the figure of the president. In fact, my research and that of others suggests that it is the daily work of these organisations that is awakening people to their own agency, constructing collective power, and resulting in new forms of articulation and praxis. With Chávez almost entirely absent from the country, the people who have been creating the on-the-ground experience of the Bolivarian Revolution are continuing to drive the country towards that vision.
Hearing from my Venezuelan friends and community-based media outlets, a popular refrain, Todos somos Chávez, (‘We are all Chávez’) is becoming even more real for those who support the Bolivarian Revolution. While, again, Chávez serves as a symbolic touchstone even in this simple sentence, in sentiment it is probably better translated as ‘we are all agents of the revolution’. In other words, the responsibility of the country is in the hands of many, not just one.
My research in Venezuela reveals that this is not a linear process, nor is it uncontested. It is full of strife, failures, forms of oppression, as well as successes and liberation. The anxiety I carry for Venezuela during this time is worry that those who are seeking to ride the Revolution to state power will fight it out on the streets in Chávez’s absence. But not all who are involved in transforming the country have abdicated their power to Chávez nor do all seek power for self-interested purposes. Many are struggling to collectively create something new that will liberate a people from the oppressions and exploitations of capitalism and patriarchy. Knowing this, I await in anticipation of what the many can do.