Since the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on March 5, thousands of memorials have transpired across the Americas, from national ceremonies to village wakes. They have been organized by those inspired by the new models of economic, political, and internationalist power propelled by the Venezuelan president. Camille Chalmers, Latin American social movement leader, gave the keynote speech at a memorial at the State University of Haiti on March 14. Beverly Bell caught up with him later in Port-au-Prince, tape recorder in hand, and recorded his thoughts.
Chávez believed heavily in creating transformative Southern power and a new unity in the South. One of Chávez’s greatest achievements was realizing an active, dynamic internationalism that can create new realities of progress.
He carried the heritage of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Simon Bolívar, who believed strongly in integration. Chávez thought everyone was an American and that there was no reason to be split into so many different, little countries. He wanted to create a large federation of people, a socialist federation of all peoples of Latin America. Everything he did worked toward that end. And during 14 years of power, there has been more progress on the question of Latin American integration than during the preceding 70 years.
It’s important to note that Chávez accomplished all this while the main objective of the U.S. State Department in Latin America was to isolate him and Venezuela. Well, we can see that that didn’t work at all. At his funeral there were 33 heads of state and more than 50 foreign delegations.
Chávez worked toward integration with the founding of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) in 2004, with the cooperation of Cuba. ALBA was an extraordinary innovation because it redefined integration not only as solidarity among the people, but also as a Latin American political question. Today ALBA unites eight nations [and two guest nations], and all the countries in ALBA have shown spectacular progress. Examples include the elimination of illiteracy in Venezuela and Bolivia, the incredible improvements in health indicators, and significant work to improve the school systems.
The birth of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) marked the first Latin American agreement that did not include the United States or Canada. It is an alternative to the OAS [Organization of American States], which is dominated by the U.S. UNASUR has a huge importance because it permits the continent to manage its own crises. For example, when the military leaders of FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] were assassinated in Ecuador, that could have degenerated into war between Ecuador and Colombia and halted all political progress in Latin America. UNASUR’s existence allowed for that crisis to be managed without a war.
After that, Chávez went on to develop integration further with CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] in 2011. Today, it is starting to deliver important results. For example, at a recent conference held in Santiago, Chile between European and Latin American heads of state, the E.U. said, “For the first time, Latin America speaks with one voice.”
And there were two other important ideas that Chávez explored but that have not been implemented: the Bank of the South and a unified South American currency, the SUCRE. These propositions could contribute a lot to the reclamation of regional and continental sovereignty.
He outraged the imperialists in every international forum. An important moment was in 2001 at the Third Annual Summit of the Americas in Quebec, during the negotiations for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas [FTAA]. There was a huge crowd in the streets, close to 50,000 people. And in the negotiations, all the presidents signed an accord in support of the FTAA, which amounted to a total domination of the Americas’ regional economy. Chávez alone stood up and said that he would not sign it because it was against the interests of the people of the Americas and against the Bolivarian constitution. I recall when he took the stage after President Bush [at the U.N. in 2006] and said that the devil himself must have just passed because the podium still smelled like sulfur.
Chávez also believed strongly in solidarity among peoples. He believed that in foreign relations, it wasn’t only about what was in it for you, but it was also about exchanging what you have in a way that respects others. We see programs like Petrocaribe, which has created a lot of change over the last 10 years in the 15 Caribbean countries that benefit from that cooperation.
And he had a lot of interest in Haiti. He spoke a lot about the Haitian Revolution. It was a source of inspiration for him. Chávez proclaimed time and again that the Haitian revolution was so important that he could not envision an effective integration of Latin American people without Haiti. He considered Haiti as an important element in the search for non-capitalist alternatives. He always maintained that the way Haiti was treated and misunderstood internationally was a grave injustice. Venezuela and Cuba were the only governments that ever denounced MINUSTAH [the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, occupying the country since 2004]. Chávez always held that position, despite other member countries of ALBA - such as Bolivia and Ecuador - providing troops.
We also have to consider how hard he worked to prioritize trade with Africa and Asia. Venezuelan trade with Africa increased threefold under Chávez. And this wasn’t unique to Venezuela; Brazil also entered into that dynamic.
Another important point is the question of socialism. When Chávez came to power, progressive forces in the world were being isolated, and everyone was saying that socialism was a thing of the past, antiquated, failed along with the Soviet Union, something we didn’t need to talk about any more. Chávez put socialism back on the table. Today it is one of the factors that inspires the reflections and actions of groups in Latin America in particular, and around the world in general. Chávez had the intelligence to present socialism as a project of the future. I think he deserves a lot of credit from all progressive forces for bringing socialism back into the dialogue of the masses.
Beginning in 2004, Chávez affirmed the socialist orientation of the battle he had been fighting all his life. One of his principal pillars: he thought we could advance toward a Fifth International to dynamize the struggles of revolutionaries. Chávez made an exceptional contribution in that sense, recognized by activists from around the world.
Chávez had outstanding charisma, vision, sincerity, strength, determination, and courage. He was an exceptional person who made an exceptional contribution. At the same time, we need to recognize that he came at a very specific time in Latin America, a moment of accumulation of strength. We are in a revolutionary period in Latin America, and it’s very important that we see Chávez as the political expression of these new battles.
Furthermore, if Chávez hadn’t had the support of many social movements that were changing the questions of politics, the vision of politics, the ways of politics, there wouldn’t have been a “Chávez,” just as there wouldn’t have been a landless workers’ movement; CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador); the Zapatistas of Mexico; women’s movements in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, etc.
Chávez is truly immortal because he represents a deep current, a deep wave. I believe that Chávez’s contribution will continue to nourish the reflections, aspirations, and dreams of all people who love social justice, who love equality, and who love liberty.
An Interview with Camille Chalmers
Economist Camille Chalmers is a leader in Latin American social movements and executive secretary of the Platform for Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA).
Hugo Chávez’ battle, with all the strength of determination the man had, is a huge legacy for every person everywhere who wants liberation for all.
A dimension of Chávez that I want to highlight is democracy. At the beginning I was suspicious. Chávez was a part of the military, he had earlier led a coup d’état, etc. However, little by little I learned that he was not a soldier in the same way as others. Chávez was very respectful of the democratic process. However, he did believe that [representative] democracy is an unstable sham that must be elevated to a populist form of democracy.
On the day of his inauguration in 1999, Chávez declared the constitution to be moribund. He called for a national referendum and put together a committee to redefine the constitution. From these debates came a constitution with a new vision. The new Bolivarian Constitution opened up a way to develop democracy further. It defines five powers: executive, legislative, judicial, electoral, and citizens’ power. Once you introduce the notion of “citizens’ power” into the constitution, it leads people to think about themselves differently. They then have political space to take initiative and exercise control over political power.
Chávez organized 15 elections between 1998 and 2013, and he or his party won 14 of the 15, and often that was by margin of 15%-20% of the vote. He set up an electoral system that was legitimate, well-run technically, and well-managed. No international observers ever accused the results of being rigged. On the contrary, Jimmy Carter said it was the best electoral system in the world. He even counseled the United States to learn from the Venezuelan electoral system.
Another manifestation of “popular power” is through the revocatory referendum. Bourgeois [representative] democracy gives a term to elected officials, say, every five years. And no matter what happens during those five years, the people cannot do anything. Chávez introduced the notion of the revocatory referendum, which allows people - under certain conditions - to revoke an elected official’s authority if their elected officials violate the interests of the population during their term. They don’t have to wait passively for the next election cycle; they can influence politics at all stages of a term. Today, this clause is integrated into the constitutions of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. I’d like to see more and more constitutions in the world adopt this provision.
Chávez also worked hard to create tools for democracy on the local level, such as communal councils, of which Venezuela now has about 30,000. These provide space to question all that is being done in the community. The state gives communal councils resources and means to carry out local projects and develop policy suggestions. In this way, Venezuela seems to have gone the furthest of any country in creating space for direct democracy.
So yes, Chávez believed in democracy, but a revolutionary, popular power democracy. He gave us an important lesson when he lost the referendum he organized concerning property reform in December 2007. This would have redefined the concept of property to public, private and communal property. Due to a disinformation campaign, the population voted against it. Only a few minutes after receiving this information, he appeared on television and accepted the defeat. That shows that Chávez took the election results seriously and he truly believed in popular democracy.
Defending the Interests of the People
Chávez’ first legacy is the defense of the interests of the most impoverished and marginalized. He knew what it was like to be impoverished, from the way his own family lived. He knew what it meant to be a minority; he had indigenous blood, and was familiar with the oppression that indigenous people experience in Latin America.
One of the most important aspects of Chávez’ life was his commitment to justice for the poorest of the poor. From 1999 onward, he embarked on a national program to respond to their needs and aspirations. It became clear to him that he could not respond to the needs of the people without severing ties with the countries that were amassing all of the country’s riches and resources for themselves. Venezuela was the only country protesting the neoliberals and the imperialists at the time.
Chávez also believed strongly in helping people develop critical thinking. Education was a priority for him. Venezuela is one of the only countries in which 10 universities were constructed in 11 years. There are currently 2,600,000 enrolled university students, as opposed to fewer than 400,000 when Chávez came to power. Venezuela is ranked as one of the top five nations of readers. Every year now, the government produces 25 million books that are distributed for free.
Another dimension is the way he believed in the culture of the people. He was very integrated and immersed in popular culture. His political and cultural discourse afforded him an exceptional relationship and close proximity to the masses. He made many investments in popular culture throughout Latin America.
The Chávez government also created a lot of initiatives for women. For example, the Women’s Development Bank is a national bank oriented exclusively towards women. There was a lot done regarding women’s education, nurseries, childcare in all the communities, and - a particularly revolutionary area - women’s pensions. For women who work at home, they can receive a pension from the state. This completely changes the notion of social security, of social protection.
Another legacy is that, from very early on, he began proactive, strategic recuperations [of state property]. He nationalized the oil industry, the telecom industry, the power industry, and the steel industry.
This was not easy because his opponents did everything they could to oppose the process and to get rid of him. In particular was the sabotage of PDVSA [Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company]. In a country that depends on oil for up to 95% of its exports, management and operators went on strike for months, effectively shutting down the company. Thanks to Algerian specialists and other international support, replacement staff for the striking workers were trained and hired.
In April 2002, once it was clear that the strike had failed - although it did severely impair the Venezuelan economy - a military coup followed. The people rose up as one, thousands and thousands of people in the streets, demanding the return of the president. This was the first time in 30 years that a coup d’état, with the military support and backing of the United States, totally failed. And when Chávez returned to power, he was stronger and more determined.
It’s very important for us to reflect on the significance of these legacies, both on the ways these battles can continue and on the new challenges they will confront.
Many thanks to Nathan Wendte who donated the English translation, and to Monica Dyer who volunteered her editing services.