Chavez' Legacy: A New Model of Popular Power: An Interview with Camille Chalmers
By Beverly Bell
March 29, 2013
Economist Camille Chalmers is a leader in Latin American social movements and executive secretary of the Platform for Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA).
Hugo Chávez’ battle, with all the strength of determination the man had, is a huge legacy for every person everywhere who wants liberation for all.
Another dimension of Chávez that I want to highlight is democracy. At the beginning I was suspicious. Chávez was a part of the military, he had earlier led a coup d’état, etc. However, little by little I learned that he was not a soldier in the same way as others. Chávez was very respectful of the democratic process. However, he did believe that [representative] democracy is an unstable sham that must be elevated to a populist form of democracy.
On the day of his inauguration in 1999, Chávez declared the constitution to be moribund. He called for a national referendum and put together a committee to redefine the constitution. From these debates came a constitution with a new vision. The new Bolivarian Constitution opened up a way to develop democracy further. It defines five powers: executive, legislative, judicial, electoral, and citizens’ power. Once you introduce the notion of “citizens’ power” into the constitution, it leads people to think about themselves differently. They then have political space to take initiative and exercise control over political power.
Chávez organized 15 elections between 1998 and 2013, and he or his party won 14 of the 15, and often that was by margin of 15%-20% of the vote. He set up an electoral system that was legitimate, well-run technically, and well-managed. No international observers ever accused the results of being rigged. On the contrary, Jimmy Carter said it was the best electoral system in the world. He even counseled the United States to learn from the Venezuelan electoral system.
Another manifestation of “popular power” is through the revocatory referendum. Bourgeois [representative] democracy gives a term to elected officials, say, every five years. And no matter what happens during those five years, the people cannot do anything. Chávez introduced the notion of the revocatory referendum, which allows people - under certain conditions - to revoke an elected official’s authority if their elected officials violate the interests of the population during their term. They don’t have to wait passively for the next election cycle; they can influence politics at all stages of a term. Today, this clause is integrated into the constitutions of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. I’d like to see more and more constitutions in the world adopt this provision.
Chávez also worked hard to create tools for democracy on the local level, such as communal councils, of which Venezuela now has about 30,000. These provide space to question all that is being done in the community. The state gives communal councils resources and means to carry out local projects and develop policy suggestions. In this way, Venezuela seems to have gone the furthest of any country in creating space for direct democracy.
So yes, Chávez believed in democracy, but a revolutionary, popular power democracy. He gave us an important lesson when he lost the referendum he organized concerning property reform in December 2007. This would have redefined the concept of property to public, private and communal property. Due to a disinformation campaign, the population voted against it. Only a few minutes after receiving this information, he appeared on television and accepted the defeat. That shows that Chávez took the election results seriously and he truly believed in popular democracy.
Defending the Interests of the People
Chávez’ first legacy is the defense of the interests of the most impoverished and marginalized. He knew what it was like to be impoverished, from the way his own family lived. He knew what it meant to be a minority; he had indigenous blood, and was familiar with the oppression that indigenous people experience in Latin America.
One of the most important aspects of Chávez’ life was his commitment to justice for the poorest of the poor. From 1999 onward, he embarked on a national program to respond to their needs and aspirations. It became clear to him that he could not respond to the needs of the people without severing ties with the countries that were amassing all of the country’s riches and resources for themselves. Venezuela was the only country protesting the neoliberals and the imperialists at the time.
Chávez also believed strongly in helping people develop critical thinking. Education was a priority for him. Venezuela is one of the only countries in which 10 universities were constructed in 11 years. There are currently 2,600,000 enrolled university students, as opposed to fewer than 400,000 when Chávez came to power. Venezuela is ranked as one of the top five nations of readers. Every year now, the government produces 25 million books that are distributed for free.
Another dimension is the way he believed in the culture of the people. He was very integrated and immersed in popular culture. His political and cultural discourse afforded him an exceptional relationship and close proximity to the masses. He made many investments in popular culture throughout Latin America.
The Chávez government also created a lot of initiatives for women. For example, the Women’s Development Bank is a national bank oriented exclusively towards women. There was a lot done regarding women’s education, nurseries, childcare in all the communities, and - a particularly revolutionary area - women’s pensions. For women who work at home, they can receive a pension from the state. This completely changes the notion of social security, of social protection.
Another legacy is that, from very early on, he began proactive, strategic recuperations [of state property]. He nationalized the oil industry, the telecom industry, the power industry, and the steel industry.
This was not easy because his opponents did everything they could to oppose the process and to get rid of him. In particular was the sabotage of PDVSA [Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company]. In a country that depends on oil for up to 95% of its exports, management and operators went on strike for months, effectively shutting down the company. Thanks to Algerian specialists and other international support, replacement staff for the striking workers were trained and hired.
In April 2002, once it was clear that the strike had failed - although it did severely impair the Venezuelan economy - a military coup followed. The people rose up as one, thousands and thousands of people in the streets, demanding the return of the president. This was the first time in 30 years that a coup d’état, with the military support and backing of the United States, totally failed. And when Chávez returned to power, he was stronger and more determined.
It’s very important for us to reflect on the significance of these legacies, both on the ways these battles can continue and on the new challenges they will confront.
Many thanks to Nathan Wendte who donated the English translation, and to Monica Dyer who volunteered her editing services.
Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.
Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.