The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fidel Castro's mythic status among the poor in Latin America has been long secure, but it is Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, who is today the continent's most charismatic figure. Unlike his counterparts elsewhere (barring Castro), Chavez is both a man of action and an intellectual. A voracious reader, Chavez made the inaugural address at the 'World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humankind' held in Caracas from December 1 to 6, 2004, in which he referred to numerous writers, poets, philosophers and political thinkers from Lorca and Unamuno, to Russell, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and Nietszche, to Marx, Trotsky and Leonardo Boff (of liberation theology fame).

Unafraid to call Falluja the Guernica of our times, Chavez presents a dramatic contrast to the reticence of most other leaders in this area. He can, in a moment, go from coolly and rationally arguing that socialism, Bolivarianism and 'Christianism' are united by an essential commitment to social justice and to the poor, to emotionally declaring that the soul of Brazil lay in its shanty towns and that the soul of Latin America was indissolubly merged with Africanism. No wonder then that he has polarized Venezuelan society as never before.

Chavez is loathed by the country's richest 20 per cent. They see him as a closet Communist and Fidelista who, by imposing capital controls, has prevented their capital from going abroad, as well as enforced far stricter tax-collection standards. American oil majors, backed by Washington, hate him. Oil extraction royalties, once pegged at 1 per cent, are now 17 per cent. The country's petroleum industry (PDVSA) ' once a state within a state ' has been wrested away from the nexus of external oil companies and their domestic collaborating classes, and their patronage-client networks. For the first time in Venezuela's history, 'oil for the people' has become a reality. The world's fifth-largest oil producer has a shocking 44 per cent (at a conservative estimate) of its 25 million population below the poverty line.

The government of the United States of America is even more incensed, not only because it has lost its Trojan Horse in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries but also because Chavez does not hesitate to forcefully and publicly denounce its imperial ambitions and its use of terrorism to fight terrorism.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are fearful that Chavez's neo-populist rejection of their neo-liberal dogmas could prove 'infectious'. Health and education are now constitutionally sanctioned fundamental rights, provided to the majority of the poor free of user charges. Pocket editions of the constitution are being printed on a large scale and distributed free so that people can become aware of their rights. There is a conscious policy of promoting greater food self-sufficiency (over 70 per cent of foodstuffs are currently imported despite abundant fertile land) through distributing land to tens of thousands of peasant families. There is also stress on the development of competitive public and cooperative sectors in light manufactured goods ' all anathema to the Bretton Woods twins.

Some 25 per cent of Venezuelans are broadly sympathetic to Chavez and another 25 per cent are wavering, while 30 per cent would die for him. Such passions, for and against, are a testimony to the fact that Venezuela is undergoing a genuine upheaval whose fate is uncertain though Chavez is politically at his peak. His resounding victory in the August 2004 referendum was followed in October by the capture in the elections of 21 of the country's 23 states and 270 of 335 municipalities. The military is firmly under his control as ever.

Chavez's real political genius, however, has been in the way he has redefined Bolivarianism as the guiding spirit and the ideology of his political project. Simon Bolivar, though born in Venezuela and a national hero, is the continent's greatest symbol of independence against colonialism. Bolivarianism, therefore, has mass appeal across national boundaries making Chavez a threat to elite regimes elsewhere. His decisive innovation was to elevate to heroic status Simon Rodriguez, Bolivar's one-time teacher and a radical humanist who left a body of writing expressing his commitment to justice for the poor. This has provided a social content to Bolivarianism that it never possessed earlier. Simultaneously, it has also given it indigenous ideological roots that protect Chavez from right-wing charges of 'importing' Communism, even as he disconcerts the traditional Latin American left which looks in vain for the Marx-inspired cadre-based party that is supposed to be backing any such progressive project.

In less than two years, Chavez has transformed social policy and practice by building independent structures parallel to the corrupt, bureaucratized and inept official ministries of health and education. In most barrios (working class neighbourhoods) throughout the country, there now exists an integrated community complex. Well-equipped medical clinics staffed by 17,000 Cuban doctors, dentists, surgeons (who live and eat with local volunteer families) provide quality treatment for free, and do it with respect for the dignity of patients. In keeping with the Cuban concept of public health, there are Cuban instructors and sports facilities. Neighbourhood soup kitchens provide two meals a day to the identified homeless. To complete the picture, there will be a subsidized supermarket for cheap basic foodstuffs, a modest cultural-recreational centre and elementary education facilities for young and old illiterates, with secondary schooling and technical colleges and universities for the more advanced. The overall result is the emergence of vibrant community-based structures that can become the foundation for the construction of a nationally coordinated system of popular democracy. This, in turn, can ensure the long-term success of his Bolivarian revolution, eventually outlasting Chavez himself. Indispensable today, he must not remain so tomorrow.

Internal and external obstacles remain. An amazing, near-one-million militants, organized into 'electoral battle units', were responsible for Chavez's referendum victory despite absolute media hostility. One-third must now become committed cadres, organized into 'social battle units', to carry Chavez's project forward by outflanking the corrupt and faction-ridden Fifth Republic Movement, the party that formally supports Chavez. Over the next decade, the moribund, reactionary and pro-US civilian bureaucracies must be revamped, difficult though it is, by the infusion of young blood trained to be professionally competent.

Externally, what can the US political establishment and its Venezuelan cohorts do, or hope for' Occupied in west Asia, a direct US invasion is ruled out for the time being. The best option for Chavez-baiters is a three-pronged strategy. Ideologically, wage the fiercest possible propaganda campaign against him. Economically, try and destabilize his rule by whatever means including sabotage. Militarily, encourage the Columbian army and government to carry out an unofficial war in Venezuela. But the most effective short-term measure would be the assassin's bullet, a possibility made all too real by the recent killing of Chavez's public prosecutor in a car-bomb explosion.

In all likelihood, Chavez will make an official visit to India early next year. It is too much to expect an Indian government, so ideologically in hock to neo-liberalism and so keen to forge a strategic alliance with the US, to try and understand, let alone endorse, Bolivarianism. But for narrowly pragmatic reasons, New Delhi might see some merit in deepening trade and investment ties with Caracas, exploring the possibility for greater South-South political cooperation, and promoting wider, stronger and freer connections between civil society in both countries. Just this much will be welcome.

The author is visiting professor, department of political science, Delhi University
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