Venezuela: The real meaning of 'Chavismo'

February 10, 2013
Huge march by suports of Venezuela's revolutionary Bolivarian movement on January 23. Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro c

There has been much speculation in the international media over the future of Venezuela in light of the poor health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan government reported on February 4 that Chavez's recovery in Cuba, from a cancer-related operation in December, was proceeding well.

Vice-President Nicolas Maduro read a statement from Chavez that day, which marked the 21st anniversary of the military-civic uprising Chavez led against a corrupt, neoliberal regime. Although it failed, it made Chavez enormously popular among the poor majority and he won the 1998 presidential elections.

During the past 14 years, the Chavez government has redistributed oil wealth, nationalised strategic sectors of industry, begun land reform, and promoted participatory forms of democracy. Poverty has been greatly reduced.

In his statement, Chavez said: “February 4th hasn’t ended. Its rebellious spirit should accompany us each day because the powers we confronted for more than two decades still persist.”

Much of the media have used Chavez's health problems to speculate that it could mark the end of “Chavismo” ― as the process of revolutionary change in Venezuela is sometimes known. Supporters of the revolution tend to use the term “Bolivarian” to describe the revolution ― pointing the legacy of Simon Bolivar who led the liberation of much of South America against Spanish colonialism.

Elias Jaua was Venezuelan vice-president from 2010-2012 and is now foreign minister. He is identified as a national leader of the left of the Chavista movement and is often seen as being more popular with rank-and-file Chavistas than some other national leaders around Chavez. Below, he looks at the origins and meaning of the term “Chavismo”. The article was translated into English by Rachel Boothroyd and is reprinted from Venezuela Analysis.

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The Bolivarian civic-military organisation that began to be built as a political force under the leadership of Comandante Hugo Chavez is rooted principally in the rebellions of the people and the military in 1989 and 1992 respectively.

However, the structure of the Bolivarian Movement 200 (MBR200) as a presence in the streets began to take place at the beginning of 1994, when Hugo Chavez was released from prison and began a social and political pilgrimage throughout the country.

Between 1994 and 1998, Chavez managed to bring students, professionals, small and medium-sized business owners, peasants, farmers, fishers, miners, Indigenous peoples, workers, women, young people, the military, local activist leaders, and almost the entirety of Venezuela’s left leadership into the project of rescuing Simone Bolivar’s thought.

The project Chavez united these forces around included a constituent assembly to re-found the state and recover national and popular sovereignty, with the goal of transforming the structures responsible for the social exclusion of the majority of the people.

He even opportunistically managed to gain the support of important sectors of the capitalists for the Bolivarian political insurgency.

That’s how Chavez was elected a president on December 6, 1998, and through this, activated a constituent process that would lead to the election of a national constituent assembly and the subsequent approval by the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s constitution. This was a totally unprecedented event in our country’s history.

Innovative steps

Within the context of the this process, Chavez began to take innovative steps, employing the armed forces en masse for activities aimed at social protection and national development, meeting the poorest and most excluded sectors of society, and challenging the bosses of the large private media chains and giving a revolutionary function to the public media.

A key part of the project was developing a courageous form of international politics and establishing links with Cuba, China, Iraq and Iran, as well as starting the recovery process for the geopolitical weight that is the OPEC ― among other challenges to the established powers.

All these measures began to shape a new political practice that is sustained through the exercise of full national sovereignty and the independence of the republic’s government from any influence from external or internal powers; the recognition of the political protagonism of the people and social inclusion as a human right, as well as the demystification of current powers.

In 2000, following a process that re-established government powers, as required by the new constitution passed in 1999, Chavez requested that the new national assembly begin to prepare to legislate social and economic matters.

This process aimed at creating and approving laws to fulfill the constitutional mandate to transform our institutions, economic regime and the role of the state in the economy.

There was a growing tension in the international arena with the defence of our sovereignty and world peace from threats by the United States, Colombia and Spain, which would lead to a confrontation with the dominant elites who would attempt to overthrow the government in 2002.


I give you this historical examination to contextualise the moment in which the term “Chavista” appears and to identify the peoples’ Bolivarian current that emerged at the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s.

Even in 2001, the political forces led by Chavez identified ourselves as “men and women of Bolivar”, very few people identified themselves as Chavista.

The moment that the dominant elites decided to put an end to this revolutionary experiment, they used all their arsenal of social hatred against the poor people who followed Chavez.

That’s how they added the new epitaph, “Chavista” in the singular and “Chavista hordes” or “circles of terror” in the plural, to the long and historic list of adjectives used to criminalise the people (such as low life, hordes, bandits, black trash, thugs).

In reality, it was an attempt to strip us of our identity as Bolivarian. It was the oligarchy’s final effort to preserve the term Bolivar within the rusty archives of history academies.

However, not only could they not steal from us the essence of the name “sons of Bolivar”, but we took on the name Chavista as well, and with dignity we gave it a new meaning.

I remember a march when I saw a sign declaring “I’m Chavista, so what?” for the first time, etched angrily on a piece of cardboard by a woman from the working class. From then on we were Chavistas, which at the beginning just meant that we were followers and defenders of Hugo Chavez.

As Bolivarians and Chavistas we won battles against the coup that briefly overthrew Chavez, the fascist strikes in 2002, the guarimbas (violent opposition protests) of 2003 and saw our president ratified in 2004 in a recall election.

After consolidating the peoples’ victories of 2002, 2003 and 2004, we once again ratified our identity as Chavista. I remember that in that period, Chavez began to question the term, because he believed that it gave way to a personalistic tendency that went against revolutionary principles. But he later realised that being Chavista was something that transcended his surname.

Being Chavista means feeling a connection of love toward a political leader who hasn’t betrayed us, it means recognising ourselves as a people who are the descendants of a historical hero (Bolivar) who belongs to us and who has become the present and the future.

It is knowing that nobody is worth more than anybody else, knowing that we all have rights to all rights, feeling a profound love in our souls for our homeland and feeling deeply proud of being Venezuelan men and women, proud of being Latin American.

Being Chavista is knowing that power belongs to us a people and not to the rich, it is feeling respected in our cultural and social diversity.
Being Chavista is being conscious of the fact that our national income is for everybody and holding human solidarity up as a supreme value.

Being Chavista is to feel part of a strong ethical belief in life, for the liberation of the people, for the union of South America, for the greatness and the beauty of what they didn’t teach us about our father, Simon Bolivar.

Being Chavista is to be irreverent in the face of domination. Being Chavista is both thinking and acting from a leftist standpoint.

That is what Bolivarianism is and Chavismo was born from it. It was profoundly Christian and then it became socialist, because there is no other way to genuinely express the highest level of human values.

Today, Chavismo is one of the largest leftist political and social forces with one of the greatest impacts on the world, and it has become a reference point for the “poor of this Earth” (a reference to Cuban revolutionary, Jose Marti).

So great is the impact of this new political culture that the right wing in Venezuela and in other countries have tried to take control, albeit unsuccessfully, of Chavismo’s codes and values.

They do not understand that there is no Chavismo without the thought and passion that Chavez has for the people, that Chavismo doesn’t exist without a free people, that there is no Chavismo without a preferential option for the poor, that there is no Chavismo without true socialism.

For this and many other reasons, we are proud to be Chavistas, socialists and Bolivarian. We are Chavismo, a joyful and revolutionary force for liberation.

This year is a year of great challenges for Venezuela, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Venezuela’s second republic, proclaimed by our father Simon Bolivar. We will live and we will win!

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