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What Hugo Chavez Left Behind: A Renewed Continent And A Revolution of Everyday Life

Hugo Chávez’s greatest legacies are not in the presidential palace, but in the factories and neighborhoods of Venezuela--where the Bolivarian Revolution was built from the bottom up.
 
 
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Members of the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front march in support of President Hugo Chávez’s 2006 re-election bid, while also advocating for their own rights and autonomy.
Photo Credit: Sílvia Leindecker

 
 
 
 

The bus slid along the Bolivian jungle road, with evangelical music blasting out of the speakers. Rain dripped steadily through the holes in the roof as the vehicle surged ahead in fits and starts, past the lights of small villages and the vast blackness of the Chapare, a tropical region in the center of the country. Eventually the rain gave way to dawn, and a hot sun baked the damp bus as we rolled into the city of Santa Cruz, where the 2003 Ibero-American Presidential summit was taking place. On the outskirts of the city, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez later spoke to a stadium packed with Bolivian coca farmers carrying bags of the green leaf and miners with mini Bolivian flags waving from their helmets.

Chávez captivated the stadium for hours, talking about baseball and Simón Bolívar, criticizing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and congratulating Bolivia for recently ousting a neoliberal president in popular protests. Smoke blew over the crowd from barbecues and occasional fireworks as the Venezuelan leader spoke into the night.

Here was a president marked by the movements and politics that surrounded him. Brazil’s Landless Movement cheered him on in a dusty gathering Porto Alegre in 2005 as he announced that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution (named after the Latin American independence leader) was a socialist political project. And the crowd went wild later that same year in Argentina as Chávez, alongside Maradona, celebrated the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

At these encounters, what was always the most impressive thing about Chávez was not so much what he said or did, but the political space and moment that surrounded him. From the Bolivian coca farmers who felt common ground in his ant-imperialist stance, to the many fellow leftist Latin American presidents that came into office during his 14 years in power, Chávez was defined by an era and a movement in Latin America that is far from depleted.

As an icon of the contemporary Latin American left, he helped create a space for other presidents to move in, whether it was with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa kicking out a US air base, or Bolivia’s Evo Morales nationalizing natural gas industries in Bolivia. The progressive constitution that Chávez helped rewrite provided a model for other governments to follow over the past decade. The regional blocs he worked to create fostered south-to-south economic and political alliances, provided a check to US military power in the region, and encouraged the leftist politics and economic policies of presidents across Latin America.

Beyond this regional influence, some of Chávez’s greatest legacies are not in the presidential palace, but in the streets, factories and neighborhoods of Venezuela, among the activists, workers and neighbors who have built the Bolivarian Revolution from the bottom up.

From communal councils to worker-run factories, Venezuela is the site of the some of the most sophisticated and successful experiments in direct democracy, socialism and worker-control in the world. While Chávez was a key figure in the development of many of these projects and initiatives, it is the Venezuelan people that brought them to life and will keep them alive after his death. Many of these programs are characterized not by top-down, bureaucratic state policies, or government funding handed out to create electoral support. They are the projects of people using the Bolivarian Revolution as a grassroots tool.

Since taking office in 1999 Chávez used his mandate as a leader, and the nation’s oil wealth, to create programs that provide free education, dental and health clinics, land and housing reform, government-subsidized supermarkets, and hundreds of thousands of business cooperatives. In Venezuela, where much of the population lives below the poverty line, these programs have had an enormous impact. Other government initiatives have helped spur on activism from below, self-governance at a local level, and direct democracy in political decision-making and funding.

 
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