Hugo Chávez Frías and the Sense of History

First published at the now-defunct website of Autonomy & Solidarity on May 1, 2005, this essay was reproduced on ZNet and at The Centre for Research on Globalization on May 3rd. Some corrections have been made—including to the name of a writer misidentified in the original text due to my transcription error. I have added notes identifying the writers whom President Chávez quoted: their common involvement in democratic resistance to the subversion of democracy, the political tyranny, the economic pillage, and the appalling violations of human rights inflicted upon Latin America by the United States and its allies and agents may help to indicate more fully his intentions in making these references.


Havana, 28 April 2005: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías delivered a major summary of his government's current international initiatives today at an event which combined a moment of intense Venezuelan-Cuban diplomatic and commercial interactions with the meetings of the Fourth Hemispheric Conference Against the FTAA.

For listeners accustomed to the thin gruel of platitudes, Orwellian inversions and vacuous cheerleading into which North American political rhetoric seems to have declined, a Chávez Frías speech can be a heady experience. The Venezuelan president shares with his friend and ally Fidel Castro Ruz an oratorical style that moves effortlessly through a wide gamut of effects, from self-deprecating banter to sustained historical analysis, from invective to geopolitical strategizing and impassioned declarations of the political ethics of what he calls the Bolivarian revolution.

Like President Castro, Chávez Frías possesses a stamina that might well make classical rhetoricians from Demosthenes to Cicero green with envy. He spoke, without notes, for three hours in Havana's Karl Marx Theatre to an audience of conference participants and students from the medical and other faculties of Havana's institutes of higher education. His subject: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which Venezuela and Cuba announced on December 14, 2004 as a principled alternative to the project of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA, or in Spanish, ALCA) which the United States has been pushing since 2001, first as an all-encompassing agreement modelled on NAFTA and the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) which the U.S. hoped to have approved by January 1, 2005, and subsequently in the form of bilateral and regional agreements into which single nations like Chile or groups of small nations like the Central American states might more easily be bullied.

According to Chávez Frías, one defining moment in his movement from protest to alternative proposal was his first meeting with President Castro in Havana in December 1994. This coincided with the Miami Summit of the Americas, at which U.S. President Bill Clinton famously (and fatuously) declared: “Now we can say that the dream of Simon Bolívar has come true in all the Americas.” That declaration, Chávez Frías said today, “was a slap in the face of history, and a slap in the face for all of us who know our history and the ideals to which Bolívar devoted his life.”

A second defining moment for him was the Québec City FTAA Summit of April 2001. Those among the more than 70,000 demonstrators who endured what Chávez Frías today called “gas warfare” (guerra de gaz) at the “wall of shame” that surrounded the Québec citadel on that memorable occasion will be gratified to learn that the protests of that weekend made an indelible impression on at least one of the 31 government leaders sheltered within the fortress.

Chávez Frías recalled from that weekend the bullying behaviour of U.S. diplomats, and of their president—to whom he referred, in a mocking allusion to Rómulo Gallegos' classic novel Doña Bárbara, as “Mister Danger.”1 He recalled as well the suave hospitality of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien—and his boast that the infamous wall was “anti-globalizationist-proof” (a boast that was refuted by the protesters who, on arriving at the wall, immediately pulled down a fifty-metre section of it).

In a discourse liberally salted with literary and historical references, Chávez Frías paid homage to two recently deceased writers: to André Gunder Frank, whose books include the classic study Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution;2 and to the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos, from whom he quoted the acerbic remark that “Globalization is a mask, a high-sounding term behind which crouches an evil intention, the old vice of colonialism.”3 Turning to address the international media, Chávez Frías cited the no less acid remark of Eduardo Galeano that “Never in history have so many been deceived by so few.”4

He then remembered, for the benefit of the U.S. media especially, an earlier moment of Cuban-Venezuelan cooperation for which the United States has every reason to feel enduring gratitude. During the American Revolution, sympathetic Cuban women raised more than one thousand pounds for the cause. This substantial contribution was delivered to the insurgent thirteen colonies by the Venezuelan captain Francisco de Miranda, who deserted from the Spanish imperial army and became a valued colleague of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Chávez Frías went on to remember the manner in which the emergent “colossus of the north” repaid this act of generosity by contributing in the 1820s to the defeat of Simón Bolívar's dream of a united Latin America.

But now, he declared, ten years and five months after Bill Clinton's empty appropriation of the name of Bolívar, “Now truly the dream of Bolívar is beginning to move toward fulfilment.” Chávez Frías quoted the proposal of Brazil's President Lula, during what he called “a historic visit” to Caracas, that if the nineteenth century was the century of Europe and the twentieth century the century of the United States, the possibility is now emerging of making the twenty-first century the century of Latin America. It is in this context that the ALBA, the dawn, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, is to be understood.

The aim is a process of comprehensive integration aimed at developing “the social state, in the interests not of elites but of the people.” The trade regimes proposed, and imposed, by the United States have empowered corporate elites, and have resulted in a neoliberal looting of countries like Argentina and Mexico (to mention only two of the most prominent victims). They have also resulted in the devastation of agricultural economies and the further immiseration of working people and of indigenous nations.

The ALBA, in contrast, seeks to empower the people at large, and holds out the utopian, revolutionary-democratic hope of eliminating poverty. The goal, Chávez Frías said, is “integration for life—not colonialism, but the happiness of our peoples.”

Forty-nine distinct documents of the ALBA have been signed between Cuba and Venezuela, or are in advanced stages of discussion. Initiatives involving other countries are also being developed. An exemplary feature of the ALBA is the fluidity of exchanges of goods and services in a manner that sidesteps international banking systems and corporatist trading interests.

Thus Venezuela, in exchange for exports of oil and building materials to Cuba, is currently benefitting from the work of nearly 20,000 Cuban doctors who have opened medical clinics in barrios and rural communities that had never previously enjoyed medical services, while Cuban-staffed literacy programs “have taught 1.4 million Venezuelans to read and write during the past year alone.” An ALBA-type agreement is currently being negotiated with Argentina, which already pays for the eight million barrels of Venezuelan oil it imports, not with hard cash or currency reserves that it does not have, but with cattle, which it does.

Other initiatives include the signing of twenty-six cooperation agreements between Venezuela and Brazil; the development of Telesur, a shared media network; the creation of a Banco Venezuelano Social, whose mission will be “to finance development in the interests of solidarity and cooperation”; and the founding of Petrosur, an “oil alliance” whose benefits to non-producing countries will include avoidance of the 30% to 50% of the price to consumer countries that under the existing system goes to oil trading corporations, that is to say to “speculative capitalist intermediaries.”

The Bolivarian dream of Hugo Chávez Frías is a large and inclusive one. “Bolivarianismo,” he declared today, is also both “socialismo” and “cristianismo.” Chávez Frías' Bolivarian-socialist Christianity echoes the liberation theologians' “preferential option for the poor.” He quoted the saying of Jesus that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”—a saying that has particular resonance in Havana, where since the beginning of the “special period” of acute economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union, “camel” has been the name given to the huge tractor-trailer trucks converted into buses for urban transportation.

This Bolivarian doctrine involves clear political choices: “According to the Bible,” Chávez Frías reminded his audience, “you can be on good terms either with God or with the devil—but not with both.” And its orientation is, very clearly, humanist: “El dios para mi—es el pueblo” (“God, for me, is the people.”)

The Venezuelan president harbours no illusions as to the kinds of tactics the U.S. empire is likely to deploy in response to a potentially continent-wide reorganization of social and economic life in the service of human rather than corporatist interests. But neither is he content with the old definition of politics as “the art of the possible.” For this slogan, which Chávez Frías says has at times “been no more than an excuse for cowards, or a by-word of traitors and conservatives,” he substitutes what we might well term a Bolivarian Alternative: “Politics is the art of making possible tomorrow what seems impossible today.”




1  After publishing Doña Bárbara (1929), which criticized the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969) was driven into exile for seven years. This novel, well known in Latin America, has been adapted in two film and three television versions. One of its villains, “Míster Peligro” or “Señor Peligro,” is a sinister American who assists the malevolent Doña Bárbara in swindling Venezuelan cattle-herders out of their lands; they are opposed by the lawyer Santos Luzardo, the novel's protagonist. In his Havana speech, Chávez used both the character's original name and also the version, “Mister Danger,” that appears in English translations of the novel. Gallegos was one of Venezuela's most highly regarded novelists; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960 (with wide support throughout Latin America). He was also a politician who was elected president in 1948 in the country's first uncorrupted presidential election—and overthrown nine months later in a military coup.

2  This book, published in 1969 by Monthly Review Press, was a sequel to The Development of Underdevelopment (Monthly Review Press, 1966), and Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1967). A major figure in dependency-theory economics and sociology, André Gunder Frank also published some three dozen other books. After holding positions in Brazilian and Mexican universities, he was appointed Professor of Sociology at the University of Chile in Santiago in 1968. He served as an advisor to Salvador Allende's government after 1970, but was forced into exile by the coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, and spent the remainder of his career in universities in Germany, the U.K., and the Netherlands. He died on April 23, 2005.

3  The novelist, short story writer, and journalist Augusto Roa Bastos is best known for his novels Hijo del hombre (1960) and Yo, el Supremo (1974). A politically engaged writer and leading exponent of magical realism, he was forced to leave Paraguay in 1947, and lived in Buenos Aires until 1976, when the imposition of Jorge Rafael Videla's dictatorship forced him into a second exile, this time in France. He returned to Paraguay in 1989, and in the same year was awarded the Premio Miguel de Cervantes. He died on April 26, 2005.

4  The Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano is one of the most widely read contemporary Latin American writers. His many books include Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1971; Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, 1973), Memoria del fuego (3 vols., 1982-86; Memory of Fire, 1988), and Patas arriba: la escuela del mundo al revés (1998; Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, 2000). Galeano was imprisoned and then forced into exile following the 1973 military coup in Uruguay; he took refuge in Argentina, from which he was driven by Videla's death squads following the 1976 coup. His writing and human rights activism have been recognized by many international awards, among them the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize (1999), the Global Exchange International Human Rights Award (2006), and the Stig Dagerman Prize (2010). For a profound assessment of his importance, see Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy, Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 2002).