The huge, genuine and spontaneous outpouring of grief that has enveloped Venezuela in the days since Hugo Chavez passed away on March 5 show that the late Venezuelan president was no ordinary politician.
Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets to accompany Chavez's coffin on its way from the hospital where he died to the military academy where his body is currently lying in state, clad in the red that symbolises the Bolivarian revolution and chanting “the people united will never be defeated”.
By March 7, more than 2 million people had endured long queues to view the body — prompting Venezuelan authorities to announce the body will remain there for a further a week to allow more people to pay their respects.
Outside of Venezuela, people have also gathered to remember Chavez. Several Latin American nations announced official periods of mourning and Latin American presidents paid homage to a president who pushed tirelessly for regional integration and unity to combat US power and exploitation.
It is inconceivable that the passing of any Australian leader could evoke this kind of response. Whereas our mainstream politicians serve powerful corporate interests, Chavez was a president of, by and for his country's poor majority.
Chavez was “their” president — not ruling above them, but encouraging them to participate directly in their country's affairs. “The only way to overcome poverty,” Chavez famously said, “is to give power to the poor”.
Not that you would know this from the mainstream media's coverage. If you swallowed the constant reporting of Chavez as a “military strongman”, “autocrat”, or even outright “dictator”, you would be at a loss to explain this heartfelt response. You could only assume millions of people had lost their minds.
But Chavez was possibly the most significant political figure to arise so far in the 21st century.
The mass movement he led rejected the corrupt two-party fake democracy and the Western-imposed neoliberal policies crippling Venezuela's people. And it did so in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we were told history had “ended” and conservatives and social democrats were repeating around the world the same mantra: “There is no alternative.”
Chavez not only showed that an alternative was possible, but he put revolution back on the agenda. He showed the way to win change was not simply winning an election, but empowering and mobilising ordinary people to confront the rich elite and build their own counter power.
Oligarchs in Venezuela and Washington, who saw this empowerment of the poor as a threat to their interests, organised a coup that toppled Chavez on April 11, 2002.
But they were defeated when the poor mobilised to smash the coup junta — who installed the head of the chamber of commerce as the new president — and brought Chavez back on April 13.
All the changes in Latin America especially the broader moves towards integration and unity would be unthinkable without the decisive and unprecedented blow to US imperialism delivered by the victorious counter-coup.
Contrary to the “dictator” slurs, Chavez was elected in free and fair elections four times, and won a recall referendum in 2004. Since 1998, his political movement has won 15 elections.
Despite the media reporting that Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro his “successor”, all Chavez did was indicate his support for Maduro to be the candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) if Chavez was unable to serve out his term. Elections will occur in the coming weeks and, once again, the Venezuelan people will decide.
Not only has not a single private media outlet been shut down (RCTV, the channel allegedly “shut down” by Chavez in 2007, is still broadcasting), but community media has exploded. There are hundreds of new radio stations in the poor barrios. Free speech, far from being restricted, has been extended.
TThe results speak for themselves. While capitalism's crisis is being taken out on ordinary people across Europe, Chavez pushed alternatives to the barbarism of the capitalist system and promoted a democratic, humanist alternative he labelled “socialism of the 21st century”.
While capitalism's crisis has left half of Spain's youth unemployed, Venezuela, by rejecting the neoliberal dictates of Western governments and financial institutions, has experienced sustained economic growth. Poverty has halved since 2004 and extreme poverty dropped by 70%, the Center For Economic and Policy Research said in an October 3 report last year.
Chavez was not perfect, nor is the Venezuelan revolution. A revolution is a process, and Venezuela's has a long way to go to overcome the deep problems inherited from the past.
We do not have to agree with every statement or policy of the government to acknowledge the impressive gains that have been made.
One thing is certain — the revolution is not over. Chavez was re-elected with more than 8 million votes last October with the draft “Socialist Plan for the Nation 2013-19” as his platform. This detailed, 39-page plan has the goal of deepening the path to socialism and revolutionary democracy.
It has since been debated at mass meetings across Venezuela, with hundreds of amendments proposed. This document is the program for the next phase of social transformation.
Ultimately, the media coverage is insulting to Venezuela's people who repeatedly elected Chavez and who risked their lives (with more than 60 people killed) to defeat the US-backed coup.
It also shows incredible disrespect for democracy. It is repeatedly implied Chavez “bought” the support of the poor with policies that have improved their lives. But all Chavez did was promise his polices would help them and then, when elected, actually did what he said.
This might seem odd to us, as our capitalist politicians do the exact opposite, but the point of democracy is to respect the people’s will.
What is more, the pro-poor social mission are not just “gifts from above” they are directly administered and under the control of poor communities themselves.
But what does it matter to some corporate media hack in a rich country that, thanks to the redistribution of Venezuela's oil wealth, illiteracy has been eradicated, millions of people won access to health care and dignified housing, or that poor farmers have finally won some land? Not a damned thing.
But to Venezuela's poor it is everything, and that is why they are mourning the first president they ever saw as “theirs”, while expressing a determination to keep advancing towards a society based on genuine equality and democracy.