Review of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott

I came upon Bolívar, one long morning
in Madrid, at the entrance to the Fifth Regiment
Father, I said to him, are you, or are you not, or who are you?
And, looking at the Mountain Barrak, he said:
‘I awake every hundred years when the people awake’

– excerpt from the poem a Song for Bolívar by Pablo Neruda, quoted in the book

As the coup to topple Hugo Chávez gathered pace on the night of 11 APril 2002, Fidel Castro heard about it and called up Chávez at midnight. The veteran warrior from Cuba provided distilled wisdom to the young socialist crusader:

‘Save your people and save yourself. Do what you have to do. Negotiate with dignity. Do not sacrifice yourself, Chávez, because this is not going to end. You must not sacrifice yourself.’

Chavez was too important a figure for the future of Latin America, Castro argued, for him to allow himself to be killed off in a coup. The advise was timely and wise.

Castro evidently had the experience of the 1973 sacrifice of Salvador Allende and his government- and the long dark years that followed the coup.

Chávez turned out to be a sharp learner who not only survived the coup but also emerged as an astute politician who is poised to succeed Fidel Castro as the leading voice of dissent against neo- imperialism and globalization as defined by the West.

Richard Gott brings such quotes- like the telephonic message from Castro- and many a historical insight to explain the phenomenon of Hugo Chávez.

Chávez is an advocate of New Socialism for the 21st century and has initiated a number of changes in his country to translate that vision into reality.

Having said this, it is important to remember, as Gott points out in this extremely necessary book- that Chávez and his concept of Socialism is derived much more from the Latin American experience of the last three centuries than from the Marxist- Leninist or Stalin- Maoist models.

Simón Bolívar has often been derided by Marxist writers as bourgeois- even Garcia Marquez ruffled a few feathers by his implicit criticism of ‘The Liberator’ in his The General in his Labyrinth. But Chavez considers Bolívar as an important part of the Left wing tradition in South America.

Left scholarship has traditionally seen Bolívar as securing liberation from Spain but with the help of the British- having subsequently handed over the continent over for exploitation by English capitalism.

Chávez, on the other hand has incorporated Simón Bolívar into the Left tradition and thereby brought in a heavier dose of nationalism into the ideology of the Left.

However, he does not share the pessimism of even the Liberator who is said to have remarked on his deathbed: ‘America is ungovernable. Those in the service of the revolution have ploughed the sea.’

‘The contradictions in Bolívar’s thought are not the determining factor’, argues Chávez, ‘What we can see in the period of history between 1810 and 1830, are the outlines of a national project for Spanish America’. Chávez evidently plans to pursue that project with renewed energy.

Another historical personality that Chávez looks upto is Simón Rodríguez, sometimes called the Robinson Crusoe of Spanish America.

Rodríguez was a schoolteacher with unorthodox views on education and commerce far in advance of his time. he also had a passionate belief in the need to integrate the indigenous people’s of Latin America, and the black slaves brought from outside, into the societies of the future independent states.

Rodríguez’s ideas about education for the indigenous population of South America and the role of the underclass are crucial for Chávez- himself a mestizo.

The third major influence on Chávez has been the revolutionary soldier Ezequiel Zamora, a provincial radical who became a soldier and strategist. He advocated far reaching land reforms for the peasants and was passionately hostile against the land owning oligarchy. But more than that, the crucial element from his thought that Hugo Chávez has internalized and that has become the axis of the Chávezista phenomenon is his advocacy of the combined role of the soldiers and civilians in his struggle and the Bolivarian dream of combining with like- minded forces across South America.

Having traced the idelogolical roots of Chávez, Gott goes on to give us an extremely well crafted narrative of the rise of Chávez, his failed coup and subsequent rise as a democrat. The new constitution that the National Assembly in Venezuela wrote under his leadership has to be read in the context of these influences on the progress of the Venezuelian revolution led by Chávez.

Another distinguishing feature of this revolution- which marks it out from previous socialist projects in Europe and Asia is the lack of an organized political party- the Movement for Socialism that Chávez leads is an amalgamation of various Left wing groups and patriotic elements from the military, the latter is explained well by Gott:

For many people outside Latin America, particularly in the quarter of a century since General Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973, it has been almost impossible to think of a military leader without conjuring up the image of the gorila, the general and his military junta in dark glasses presiding over an authoritarian and repressive regime. Few recall the handful of leftist military rulers to have taken the side of the poor and the peasants, and pushed through radical reforms in the teeth of fierce opposition from local oligarchs and the United States. Few remember that Allende recruited progressive officers to serve in his government.

The extent of the opposition that he has invited from the previous ruling circles in his own country and the repeated coup attempts against his government are explained in the context of far reaching changes that he has brought about in nationalizing specially the oil industry, providing rights to indigenous people and in his efforts to decentralize development works.

He has repeatedly invited the wrath of the United States as his policies place him in the anti- globalization league.

Revolutionaries in every age are threatended by twin forces. On the one hand, every revolution spawns a counter- revolution as Marx observed somewhere, on the other, as the experience of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century have demonstrated, every revolution devours its own children.

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is threatened more from the former at the moment, though the latter may soon be a threat too.

For all those who wear of a patch of red on their heart, the success of socialism in Venezuela and in rest of South America is extremely important.

Its continuous progress opens up new vistas for the revival of the socialist project that suffered a dramatic, if temporary, defeat after the fall of ‘existing’ socialism in the Soviet Union.

An interview with Richard Gott here.

Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott
Publisher: Verso

Edition: 2005
Pages 315

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One thought on “Review of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott

  1. Chavez is leveraging the presence of oil in venezueala – He can and he is. But how far will the reverberations of this Bolivarian revolution echo in Latin America? For sure, he is a beacon of hope.. And i hope he withstands the unscrupulos methods of U.S to obliterate him. Like Castro, if he can move on for a while , for sure, there will be rewards!

    Lets hope for the best!

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