Our generation has few great heroes who have fallen before their time. Our parents can remember losing Malcolm and Martin and Allende and Nkrumah and Lumumba and Che and Medgar and so many others. But we have few we can really point to. And when we see them go, many of us are too quick to prove our disdain for iconography and our lack of faith in any kind of leadership.
Especially from the 1960s to the 1980s, Latin America was in the grips of dirty wars. Dirty, filthy, anti-communist wars. Wars in the shadows, wars in broad daylights, wars in mine-filled bay waters, in helicopters over seas, in industry-turned-torture chambers. Hundreds of thousands were tortured, murdered, disappeared. Continent-wide white terror heard that cliche about “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come” and set out to prove that death squads had a way of doing so. Towns erased, family lineages extinguished, peoples washed off the historical record, and dreams shattered. Dreams of independence, of socialism, of agency. On top of that, the Soviet-style dictatorships collapsed, and while the realities were complex (I probably don’t mean what you think I do), the writing was on the wall:
“History is over.”
“Socialism was an experiment of the past.”
“Neo-colonialism has won.”
The 1990s (starting earlier for some, later for others) was a decade of defeat for many. It was a decade of rebuilding after the wars and dictatorships. It was a decade where neo-liberalism emerged atop the heap of rubble that was social unrest, and declared it had vanquished every foe. Cuba struggled through its Special Period. NAFTA had passed, and rushed processes that had hit people hard. The Zapatistas were a rare beacon of hope, and truth be told, their particular brand of autonomous struggle did not spread nearly as rapidly or forcefully as many other styles of revolt. The blood still visible in the streets. Privatization creeping across the lands like the Nothing. The Washington Consensus with its chin up. The people cowered.
It was into this mix that Hugo Chavez stepped. He was a man. Larger trends on either side of him propelled the possibilities. Squatters and anti-privatization uprisings and Zapatistas and social struggle. But Chavez’s victory, one I remember, signified that the Americas were not destined to be mono-polar. It signaled that the Allendes and Arbenzes and Bosches and Sandinistas had not existed in vain. And a hope sprung eternal, resonating across the continent.
Chavez played a huge role with social revolt across the hemisphere to resoundingly prove that socialism was not a dead fish in the water, and that capitalism’s warpath would not only go contested, but would take a beating back. Venezuela early on experienced a Constituent Assembly, where the same families whose loved ones had been massacred in the Caracazo of 1989 could participate in the creation of a new constitution, one of few countries to have ever successfully done one. Thanks to massive protests in every successive Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, Chavez was able to walk out of the project altogether. The process, be it revolutionary or socialist or radical, has often been slow, but it has happened.
And while Chavez was busy reapportioning the country’s wealth, building a different multilateral model in the Americas, breaking the oil oligarchy, nationalizing industries, and pushing back el tiburon (Uncle Sam), so much of the past 14 years in Venezuela was actually done because Chavez created the space for the people to do it. They no longer need fear another Caracazo massacre, death squads, or a dirty war. People occupied factories and reactionary institutions. It was people who set up this clinic and that literacy program, and people who demanded these resources or squatted land for community gardens. And when Chavez was ousted in a US-sponsored coup d’etat in 2002, a few days I will never forget, it was the people who revolted and did the unthinkable- overturned a fascist coup in a manner of days.
Uprisings and revolts across Latin America became increasingly common, as the masses were emboldened. Leftist or mildly left governments came to power in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, with varying results- but the point is that people across the continent (and indeed, the world) BELIEVED. They didn’t just fight, they believed once again that they could win. They believed it wasn’t just a ritual fight for their lives against inevitable doom. They took to the streets, or the haciendas, or the factories, and knocked oppressive structures flat on their feet.
You and I cannot assess Hugo Chavez right now. He is as worthy of biting criticism as he is of great praise. I follow Marx who contented we need “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” without fear of the results of delving deep. If you aren’t capable of that, you’re a poor Marxist. But you must look at the world for the forces that exist, and examine the balance of where we were yesterday and where we are today. Hugo Chavez impact was massive. He took a world spinning on an axis that would lead us all to ruin, and knocked it into left field. Venezuela struggles mightily with corruption, crime, and a violent criminal justice system. Y’know, like Mexico, Colombia, Iraq, Italy, and Chicago do. But the true assessment of Chavez is not what he did in life, but what carries on after him.
If Venezuela has been in the early throes of a socialist revolution, if the process was fueled by the creativity and sweat of the people, if that country and our region has built a sense of historical-subjectivity for those who were subaltern, bound to the margins, then Venezuela’s process has only just begun. Then Latin America is as much on a road toward a collective liberation and the downfall of authoritarian violence and mammonic exploitation, and the people across nuestra America have only just begun to fight and negate and build and create.
If it all ends soon, and we can’t simply point to some Western destabilization scheme as the sole cause (and we can’t), then I have been wrong. It was a wonderful moment, a huge and very exciting wave, millions saw improvements in their quality of life, and hopefully it will be done right next time. It will have laid some foundations, changed some details, saved many lives, and will be by-and-large rolled back under another reaction-Thermidorian or Chamorro-style.
But if it doesn’t, we are still just at the dawn of the future. And as Chavez has taken his last breaths, we move on that much stronger. A new world doesn’t just come correct. You have to build it. Our late comrade, I believe, has helped lay some strong foundations for that better world.
This article originally appeared on sabokitty.tumblr.com.