Hugo Chavez cut a wide swath on the international scene, more than that of any other leader in the recent history of Latin America, putting forth a vision of a world based on equitable relations among nations and peoples. His rise to hemispheric prominence began at the third Summit of the Americas in April 2001 in Quebec, Canada when the newly inaugurated George W. Bush attempted to ram through the Free Trade Area of the Americas that was to extend from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in South America.
It was there that I first saw Chavez whose warm and charismatic persona stood in sharp contrast to Bush's smug and arrogant demeanor. Of the thirty-four hemispheric heads of state in attendance, only Chavez refused to agree to the summit's declaration calling for the implementation of the free trade zone by 2005. Chavez stance concurred with that of over 50,000 demonstrators in Ottawa who were protesting the devastating impact of free trade agreements and the economic policy that under-girded them, neoliberalism.
Not content to simply oppose US free trade policies and neoliberalism, Chavez at a meeting of Caribbean nations later in the year called for the “economic, social, political and cultural integration of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.” Then in 2004 Venezuela and Cuba set up ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas to encourage 'fair trade' not free trade. Bolivia joined in 2006 and later Nicaragua, Ecuador and five Caribbean countries. ALBA's objective is almost diametrically opposed to the free trade agreements, aiming instead to promote trade on the principle of solidarity instead of competition- a state-centered instead of a neoliberal approach toward integration. The exchange of Cuban medical personnel for Venezuelan oil is just one early example of the type of agreement reached under ALBA. Cuba and Venezuela have also collaborated under ALBA to provide literacy training to the peoples of other ALBA member countries, such as Bolivia. The key concept is to trade and exchange resources in those areas where each country has complementary strengths and to do so on the basis of fairness, rather than market-determined prices.
Today ALBA is a significant economic actor in the Caribbean basin. Through ALBA, member nations have created so-called empresas grannacionales (‘supranational enterprises’) for the production of medicines and food. In contrast to transnational corporate projects these enterprises are based on serving a social need, rather than merely making a profit. The continental TV station Telesur and the regional oil company Petrocaribe are examples of supranational projects. ALBA also has a bank – with a start-up capital of 1 percent of the member countries’ monetary reserves– that provides low-interest loans for agricultural and industrial development in member countries.
ALBA has also been a significant force in hemispheric politics. When the hemispheric leaders met again in 2005 at the fourth Summit of the Americas at Mar del Plata, Argentina with George W. Bush once again in attendance, the ALBA nations combined with Presidents Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, dealt a death blow to the US hopes to setting up the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The culmination of Chavez's dreams for a continent free from US tutelage came in December, 2011 at an historic conclave in Caracas, Venezuela, There all the countries of the hemispheric, excluding the United States and Canada, agreed to set up CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a direct challenge to the US-promoted Organization of American States, which had dominated hemispheric affairs for decades. CELAC envisions the eventual political and economic integration of the region, and adopted a wide-ranging and detailed Plan of Action that set the goals of establishing preferential trade tariffs, collaborating in energy and environmental projects, and ending illiteracy in every country in three years.
Perhaps Chavez' greatest international legacy is the revival of socialism. He more than any other figure is identified with the concept of' twenty-first-century socialism.' On January 30, 2005, he addressed the fifth annual gathering of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. I was among a crowd of 15,000 at the Gigantinho stadium, as Chavez proclaimed: 'It is impossible within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion as the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path … a new type of socialism, a humanist one, that puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.'
Chávez’s call to construct a new socialism for the twenty-first century marked a turning point in progressive history. Before that moment, even sectors of the left believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had heralded the death of socialism. Yet here was a president willing to reclaim the word ‘socialism,’ placing it back on the public agenda. Moreover, these were not just the words and aspirations of a single figure; Chavez captured the growing anti-capitalist consciousness of a popular democratic movement that was directly challenging neoliberalism and US hegemony in the region. Socialism could be achieved with ‘democracy,’ insisted Chávez, ‘but not the type of democracy being imposed from Washington.’
During the past eight years, Chavez and the Venezuelan nation have gone far to implant socialism in their country. In late 2005 Chávez began called on citizens to form communal councils. The Law of Communal Councils defined these councils as ‘instances for participation, articulation,and integration between the diverse community-based organizations, social groups and citizens, that allow the organized people to directly exercise the management of public policies and projects.’ To date over 40,000 communal councils have been formed. Cooperatives are also a major form of constructing socialism from below. Many factories are now administered by workers councils, particularly in the steel, aluminum and bauxite industries. Food distribution centers are also controlled by the workers. The road to socialism, however is fraught with difficulties, as shortages and inflation have gripped the economy. Even Chavez acknowledged in his final days that Venezuela had by no means achieved a socialist utopia.
In spite of these problems, and contrary to the opinion of critics who decry his 'authoritarian rule', Hugo Chavez has left behind a political, social and economic edifice that is capable of carrying the revolution forward. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is a capable leader of a trade union background who served as foreign minister until becoming vice-president. He will surprise people, as did Chavez, with his ability to lead Venezuela and to carry forth the struggle for democratic socialism and a better world.
Roger Burbach is the co-author with Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism, just released by Zed Books. Chapter 4 is 'Venezuela's Twenty-First-Century Socialism'. To order the book, see the web site: www.futuresocialism.org