Was Chávez a dictator? — 10 years since his death

8 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s article originally published in

by Alan Woods

The hatred the ruling class showed towards Chavez was the hatred of the rich for the poor, of the exploiter for the exploited. Behind this hatred there was fear – fear for the loss of their wealth, power and privileges. It reflected the fundamental class division of society. And it was never eliminated. If anything, it grew steadily in intensity until his death, and after it.

I cannot remember a campaign of such ferocity in the media as that which was unleashed against Hugo Chávez during his lifetime. Never has there been such an outpouring of hatred, malice, bile and poison. Never has the so-called free press resorted to so many distortions,, falsifications and outright lies. And the avalanche of filth keeps pouring out.

The spiteful arguments of the enemies of the Revolution to the effect that Chávez is a dictator were always ironic. Whatever you think about Hugo Chávez, he was certainly no dictator. He won more elections and other electoral processes than any other political leader in the world.

In fact, the Bolivarian revolution has been extraordinarily lenient with its opponents who, do not forget, organized an illegal coup against a democratically elected government in 2002. They seem to complain a lot about alleged ill treatment, but I see no basis for these complaints.

For years the pro-opposition media was allowed to slander the President in the most scandalous way, to call for his overthrow and even assassination. Do you think that would be permitted in the United States? RCTV, Globovisión, Venevisión, all the privately owned TV channels played a very active role in organizing the 2002 coup. If any British television channel had done one tenth of the things they did, it would have its license withdrawn before it could say “David Cameron” and its owners would find themselves on trial under the Anti-Terrorist Laws. In Venezuela it took over four years for action to be taken against any of them, when RCTV was denied the renewal of its open to air licence, but allowed to continue to broadcast over cable.

Even so, the opposition has complained that the Presidential election of April 14 has been called too soon. But if the government had not called elections, as it had the duty to do according to the Constitution, they would be complaining of dictatorship. Nobody has prevented the opposition from standing in elections. The problem is that they have lost. But that is democracy! The opposition, if it is to be truly democratic, must begin by respecting the will of the majority of the people and not to use its economic levers and control of the media to sabotage the democratic will of the people.

The role of the individual in history

Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in history. It merely asserts that individuals, no matter how capable, are never free agents. Their role is always limited and conditioned by circumstances beyond their control. But when a particular concatenation of circumstances arises, it requires men and women of a certain type to take advantage of them to move millions of people into action.

Without two men, Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would never have succeeded. Yet these same two men for most of their lives found themselves in a tiny minority, isolated from the masses and unable to influence events in a decisive way. Without the Caracazo in February 1989, it is not impossible that Hugo Chávez might have remained an army officer pursuing a normal military career unknown to the public.

But there is another side to the question. Without his actions, it is also possible that those tragic events would have passed into history as a mere footnote. Venezuelan society and politics would have returned to that monotonous routine determined by tradition and the inertia of habit. The personal role of Chávez was decisive. He acted as a catalyst, which, when all the conditions are present, produces a dramatic change.

Towards the end of his life, in Fredrick Engels wrote:

“Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even a definite, delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for such a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.” (Engels Letter to Borgius, 25 January 1894, Marx and Engels Correspondence, pp.467-68)

The important words here are: “good or bad.” The quality of individual leaders is extremely important. If I have a good dentist and he falls ill, I have no doubt that a substitute will be found – “good or bad”. But it is not a matter of indifference to me whether the substitute is a competent dentist or not. Matters are still more serious in the case of war.

If Napoleon had not been present at the battle of Austerlitz, the French would have found a substitute, of course. But whether that substitute would have been capable of winning the battle is quite another matter. It is just the same with revolutions. If Lenin and Trotsky would not have been present in November 1917, we know who would have substituted for them: Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. We also know that under their leadership the Russian Revolution would never have succeeded. “Good or bad” makes all the difference.

An individual’s personality can have an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends.

From the standpoint of the masses, the poor and downtrodden, Hugo Chavez was the man who brought them to their feet and who inspired them, by his undoubted personal courage, to acts of unparalleled heroism.

Chávez and the masses

A few years ago, when I was on a speaking tour in Italy, a left wing journalist from Il Manifesto asked me in a perplexed tone: “But Alan, what has the situation in Venezuela got in common with the classical model of the proletarian revolution. In reply, I quoted the words of Lenin: “Whoever wishes to see a ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it. Such a person talks about revolution and does not know what a revolution is.”

A revolution is, in essence, a situation where the masses begin to participate actively in politics and to take their destiny into their own hands. Leon Trotsky – who, after all, knew a few things about revolutions – answers in the following way:

“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Preface, my emphasis)

This is certainly the case in Venezuela. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of the Venezuelan Revolution and the secret of its success.

The relationship between Hugo Chávez and the masses was a very complex and dialectical one. I had occasion to see this for myself many times when I attended the mass rallies where he addressed the people. He aroused colossal enthusiasm and devotion. We saw the same emotions on the streets of Caracas on the days before and after his funeral.

When Chávez spoke to the workers and peasants, the effect was always electric. On such occasions, one could sense a kind of chemical reaction between Chávez and the masses. There was no mistaking the intense loyalty felt by the poor and downtrodden masses to this man. Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope. That is the secret of the extraordinary devotion and loyalty they have always shown him. He aroused them to life and they see themselves in him.

Chavez’s enemies on the right could never understand the reason for this. They could not understand it because they are organically incapable of understanding the dynamics of the revolution itself. The ruling class and its intellectual prostitutes can never accept that the masses have a mind and personality of their own, that they are a tremendously creative force that is capable not only of changing society but also of administering it. They can never admit such a thing because to do so would be to admit their own bankruptcy and confess that they are not a necessary and indispensable social agent endowed with a God-given right to rule, but a superfluous and parasitic class and a reactionary obstacle to progress.

But it was not only the bourgeois who were incapable of understanding what was happening in Venezuela. Many on the Left were equally unable to understand this phenomenon. Incapable of placing themselves on the standpoint of the masses, they adopted a haughty attitude, as if the masses whose name they were always invoking were ignorant children who needed to be educated by them. Unfortunately for these “Lefts”, the masses showed not the slightest interest in these would-be educators or their lessons.

How can we explain the peculiar chemistry that existed between Hugo Chávez and the masses? It is true that he possessed unique gifts as a communicator: a powerful personality, a penetrating intellect and a profound understanding of the psychology and aspirations of the masses. However, the real secret is to be found, not in the realm of psychology, but in the relations between the classes.

The masses saw themselves reflected in Chávez. They identified themselves with him as the man who first awakened them to political life and who has given voice to their aspirations. They personify the Revolution in him. For them, Hugo Chávez and the Revolution was one and the same thing. I wrote about my impressions when I first saw this in April 2004:

“As he spoke, I was able to watch the reaction of the masses on the big screen behind the president. Old people and youngsters, men and women, the overwhelming majority working class, listened intently, straining on every word. They applauded, cheered, laughed and even wept as they stood there. This was the face of an aroused people, a people that has become aware of itself as an active participant in the historical process – the face of a revolution.”

The process cut both ways. Chávez drew his strength from the support of the masses, with whom he identified fully. In his manner of speaking – spontaneous and completely lacking in the stiff formality of the professional politician – he connected with them. If there was sometimes a lack of clarity, even this reflected the stage in which the mass movement found itself. The identity was complete.

Those Who Die for Life – like Hugo Chávez – Cannot Be Called Dead

6 mins read

On 28 October 2005, a special event was held in Caracas at the National Assembly of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. At this gathering, held on the birthday of Simón Rodríguez (Simón Bolívar’s teacher), the Venezuelan government announced that nearly 1.5 million adults had learned to read through Mission Robinson, a mass literacy programme that it initiated two years earlier. The mission was named after Rodríguez (who was also known by the pseudonym Samuel Robinson).

One of those adults, María Eugenia Túa (age 70), stood beside President Hugo Chávez Frías and said, ‘We are no longer poor. We are rich in knowledge’. The Venezuelan government built Mission Robinson based on a Cuban teaching method for adult literacy called Yo sí puedo (‘Yes I can’) developed by Dr. Leonela Relys Díaz of the Latin American and the Caribbean Pedagogical Institute (IPLAC) in Cuba. On that day, Venezuela declared to the United Nations that its people had transcended illiteracy.

The previous year, in December 2004, Chávez spoke at the graduation ceremony of 433 students from the Yo sí puedo programme held at the Teresa Carreño Theatre in Caracas. Mission Robinson, Chávez said, is going to ‘organise the army of light’ that will take literacy to the people, wherever they live, taking ‘Mohammed to the mountain’. Commenting on the educational journey of one of the graduates, Chávez described the opportunities that stem from literacy: ‘She has not wasted any time and is already learning mathematics and geography, Spanish language and literature. And she is studying Bolivarian ideas because she can read. She can read the Constitution. She can read Bolívar’s writings. She can read the letters that Bolívar wrote’.

The Bolivarian process organised the distribution of world literature and non-fiction books to libraries created in working class neighbourhoods in order to ‘arm ourselves with knowledge’, Chávez said. Quoting the Cuban national hero José Martí, Chávez reflected on the relationship between education, emancipation, and the history being made by the Venezuelan people: ‘To be cultured in order to be free. To know who we are, to know our history in depth, that history from which we come’.

For Rosa Hernández, one of the graduates, the mission provided ‘clarity because before there was darkness. Now that I know how to read and write… I see everything clearly’. María Gutiérrez, Rosa’s classmate, said that her entry into the ‘army of light’ took place ‘thanks to God, to my president, and to the teachers who taught me’.

Ten years ago, on 5 March 2013, Hugo Chávez died in Caracas after a prolonged fight against cancer. His death rattled Venezuela, where large sections of impoverished workers mourned not just a president, but the man they felt was their comandante. As Chávez’s cortege passed through Bolívar Square, Alí Primera’s 1976 song, Los que mueren por la vida (‘Those Who Die for Life’), rang out from the crowd:

Those who die for life
Can’t be called dead.
And from this moment
It is forbidden to cry for them.

It is forbidden to cry, they sang, not because they did not want to grieve, but because it was clear that the legacy of Chávez was not in his own life but in the difficult work of building socialism.

Six years after Chávez’s death, I walked with Mariela Machado through the Kaikachi housing complex where she lived, in the La Vega neighbourhood of Caracas. During Chávez’s first presidential term, Mariela, her family, and 91 other families occupied a plot of land that had been given to corporate developers by a previous administration but left empty. These working-class families – many of them Afro-Venezuelan – went directly to Chávez and asked to build houses on the plot. ‘Can you do it?’, Chávez asked them. ‘Yes’, said Mariela. ‘We built this city. We can build our own homes. All we want are machines and materials’. And so, with resources from the city, Mariela and her comrades built their modest apartment buildings.

A bust of Chávez sits outside of the community centre, where there is a bakery that provides affordable, high-quality bread to the residents; a kitchen that feeds 400 people; a community hall; and a small room where women sew clothes for a business that they run. ‘We are Chavistas’, another woman told me, her eyes shining, a child at her hip. The word ‘Chavista’ has a special resonance in places such as this. It is not uncommon to see t-shirts with Chávez on them, his image and the iconic ‘Chávez eyes’ everywhere. When I asked Mariela what will happen to Kaikachi if the Bolivarian process falls, she pointed to the neighbouring apartment buildings of the well-heeled and said, ‘If the government falls, we will be evicted. We – Black, poor, working class – will lose what we have’.

Mariela, Rosa, María, and millions of other people like them – ‘Black, poor, working class’, as Mariela said, but also indigenous and marginalised – carry with them the new vital energy of the Bolivarian Revolution, which began with Chávez’s electoral victory in 1998 and continues to this day. This sentiment is encapsulated in the Chavista slogan, ‘We are the Invisible. We are the Invincible. We will overcome’.

Observers of the Bolivarian Revolution often point to this or that policy in order to understand or define the process. But what is rarely acknowledged is the theory that Chávez developed during his fifteen years as president. It is as if Chávez did things but did not think about them, as if he was not a theorist of the revolutionary process. Such attitudes towards leaders and intellectuals of the working class are insidious, reducing the strength of their intellect to a spate of thoughtless or spontaneous actions. But, as Chávez (and many others) showed, this bias is unfounded. Each time I saw Chávez, he wanted to talk about the books he had been reading – Marxist classics, certainly, but also the newest books in Latin America (and always the latest writings of Eduardo Galeano, whose book, Open Veins of Latin America, he gave to US President Barack Obama in 2009). He was concerned with big ideas and questions of the day, above all the challenges of building socialism in a poor country with a rich resource (oil, in the case of Venezuela). Chávez was constantly theorising, reflecting and elaborating upon the ideas shared with him by women such as Mariela, Rosa, and María, and testing these ideas through practical experiments in policy. Bourgeois narratives are quick to dismiss the country’s literacy campaign as nothing extraordinary, but this misses its significance entirely, both in terms of its underlying theory and its immense impact on Venezuelan society. The point of Mission Robinson was not merely to teach people how to read, but also that the Yo sí puedo curriculum would encourage political literacy. As Chávez said of the Yo sí puedo graduate in 2004, ‘she is studying Bolivarian ideas because she can read. She can read the Constitution. She can read Bolívar’s writings’.

This graduate would become one of many women leaders in her community. Another, Alessandra Trespalacios, participated in social programmes in a wretchedly poor area and became a leader in the Altos de Lidice Commune’s community council and health clinic. It is women such as Alessandra who began to weigh children and the elderly in their neighbourhood as a part of their poverty eradication policy, and who would give the underweight extra food from their stores. ‘We are motivated by love’, she said, but also by the revolutionary ideas that she and her fellow students learnt from Mission Robinson.

To commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Simón Bolívar Institute for Peace and Solidarity (Venezuela) are pleased to offer you our dossier no. 61, The Strategic Revolutionary Thought and Legacy of Hugo Chávez Ten Years After His Death (February 2023). This text is a preliminary account of Chávez’s revolutionary theory, which was built out of the necessity to improve the everyday lives of the Venezuelan people, out of the challenge to construct housing, health care, and literacy programmes, but then went further, delving into how to transform the country’s productive relations and defend the sovereignty of Venezuela and Latin America from US imperialism. It is, as we write, a theory that is ‘alive and entirely revolutionary’ and not ‘a recipe nor a set of dry academic reflections’.

The thinking of Chávez starts at the desk of an indigenous woman in the heart of the Venezuelan plains, a woman whose reading of the Constitution of 1999 – ratified with a 72% vote in favour – motivated her to become a leader in her town, perhaps of Sabaneta (in Barinas state), where Chávez was born on 28 July 1954. That’s always the start of his theory.

We hope you will read, share, and discuss our dossier to better understand the praxis of the Bolivarian Revolution. A few years ago, Anacaona Marin, who leads the El Panal commune in the 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas, told me, ‘A connection is often made between socialism and misery. In our work, through the Chávez method, this connection will be broken. It cannot be broken by words alone, but by deeds. That is chavismo’.