Vigorously expressing his stances on revolution and terrorism in London, Hugo Chavez appeared more an ideological force than national leader. His speech (linked above, source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXQfnTjcXlk) echoed the ideas and struggles that have existed in his country for the last century. For my final project, I analyzed how Chavez’s “21st century socialism” reflected Venezuela’s rich environmental, historical, and economic context. In granting greater state control of the economy, “21st century socialism” tied the economic with the political, and the political with the anti-American authoritarian regime, but these relationships have held since the early 1900s in the longer story of Chavez’s rise to power.
As a nation, Venezuela is commonly associated with its long-standing leading export: oil. Uniting a once locally-ruled country, Venezuela’s primary natural resource gave the national government reason and funds to expand its operations. In the image below (source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuela-wins-appeal-on-1-4-billion-payment-to-exxon-mobil-1489190693), we see a direct juxtaposition of the flag and an oil facility, demonstrating how oil’s influence over the its government continues today. Without heightened state power to serve as a precedent, Chavez’s far-reaching authoritarian power would not have received acceptance within the Venezuelan political culture.
What is socialism without revolution? Chavez’s language in his London speech, sweeping and dramatic, suggests a continuation of revolution fervor for “the people”. The concept of mass resistance in Venezuela dates back, however, to the class warfare of the 20th century. Dissatisfied by corrupt governments taking advantage of the lower classes to achieve oil profits, guerrilla fighters collaborated with the marginalized populations, leading to violent riots such as the 1989 Caracazo. Against the backdrop of this social turmoil, Chavez rallied populist support for his socialist agenda.
Deeming his policies part of a “Bolivarian Revolution”, Chavez often used the image of Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar to justify his resistance to American exploitation, as seen in the below image (source: https://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/chavez-unveils-a-photo-reconstruction-of-simon-bolivar/). The 1990s had seen deep social inequalities forming due to harsh neoliberal capitalism, and Chavez’s constituency consisted of the many subsequently left out of the economic progress. “21st century socialism” aimed to resist both this economic system through improving conditions for workers, and the country that benefitted from neoliberalism: the United States. In light of this, it is no wonder that he points out American atrocities in Iraq during his London speech.
It is important when analyzing a particular political or economic system to understand the cultural aspects leading to its establishment. Moving forward without Chavez, Venezuela will continue its conversation with and development of its traditions.