What Chávez Left Behind: The Streets of a Continent and a Bolivarian Revolution of Everyday Life

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 at 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.

A story from the neighborhood of El 23 de Enero in Caracas is emblematic of such progressive trends. El 23 de Enero neighborhood has a history of social consciousness and rebellion; as a poor, working class neighborhood, El 23 de Enero was marked by the police as a dangerous area, whose residents should be controlled and repressed. During conservative presidencies, the local police station was a place of torture and imprisonment for many leftist community leaders. After decades of state violence, and following the election of Chávez, the community was able to reclaim and transform this center of police repression. Juan Contreras, a radio producer, leader in the community organization Coordinador Simón Bolívar, and long-time resident of the neighborhood, told me how he and his compañeros took over the police station—for decades an outpost for crackdowns on leftist organizing—and transformed it into a community radio station and cultural center.

“This place was a symbol of repression,” Contreras explained to me in the studio, which smelled like fresh paint. “So we took that symbol and made it into a new one.” He continued: “It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. We can’t hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes.” The station receives state funding, but community members fought hard for permission to reclaim the police station by occupying the building without permission. El 23 de Enero’s victories are examples of how Venezuelan movements worked with the Chávez administration by demanding attention through direct action, and then working with subsequent state support.

The tactic used in El 23 de Enero of seizing upon the opportunities and space provided by the Chávez government, while also maintaining grassroots autonomy and momentum from below, is the foundation of many of the hopeful social changes going on in Venezuela today. Communal councils offer an interesting look into some of the participatory aspects of the Bolivarian process. They were created by the government in 2006, and thousands of them exist across the country today. The councils work to solicit funding from the government, begin social projects, programs, and missions in their community, and deal with issues like the management of local health and water projects. Long-time Venezuelan activist Alfonso Olivo believed the communal councils were “the most revolutionary measure that this government has taken” due to their transfer of power from mayors and governors to the ordinary citizens in the councils. “The people are capable [of social planning] by themselves, without the involvement of the state or the bureaucratic officials,” he explained in the excellent edited collection of interviews Venezuela Speaks! Voices From the Grassroots.

Communal councils in Venezuela show the fascinating push and pull that emerges where the state creates structures and projects that build community bonds. The councils are sometimes autonomous from, or even antagonistic toward, the Bolivarian state and party. The Chávez administration organized the councils in ways that encourage community involvement. Anyone over the age of fifteen can participate, and for a decision to be officially made, at least 30 percent of those in the council have to vote on it. In urban areas, councils must involve a minimum of 150 families, and around 20 families in rural areas. This scale means that the councils promote direct participation and are relatively easy to self-manage. When a council comes to a decision for a project, they can receive funding directly from the national government or national institutions, dispersing power away from local mayors and officials and into the hands of residents themselves.

Communal councils have provided a check to the power of local governments, as well as a platform to demand transparency and a more efficient bureaucracy from the government. The smaller scale and local focus of these councils is essential to their functionality, helping to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and circumvent corrupt or unresponsive politicians. 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>a community activist in a Caracas neighborhoodmanage them as cooperatives2006 interview 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>

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