Ten Things I Learned from Hugo Chávez

I like to gather signs of hope that things really can change for the better in a major way. With that in mind, I keep the website venezuelanalysis.com as my home page. On the afternoon of March 5, 2013, I had to catch my breath when I saw the headline, “President Hugo Chávez has Died.” Almost ten years ago, inspired by the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, I started learning as much as I could about Venezuela and Hugo Chávez. I participated in “reality tours” and political delegations to show solidarity, and to bring the lessons back home. Here are some things I learned.

1. Keep Smiling. Hugo Chávez’ charisma and popularity was based on his speaking to – and acting on – the needs of the people, who could see he was one of them. Also, Chávez had a huge smile he gave generously, lifting spirits in the struggle. Sure, we can’t smile all the time, and Hugo Chávez didn’t either, but I learned that when we do smile, we give a renewable source of energy that can light up the place.

2. 1% Lies are Enormous. The 1%, along with their military-industrial-media complex, uses the approach “by any lies necessary” to counter the power of good examples that can inspire hope and action in the rest of us. As a result of these enormous lies, Americans who know almost nothing about current affairs in Latin America believe the lie that Hugo Chávez was a dictator. In fact, Chávez was a democratically elected president, elected by a wide margin after running as an outsider in Venezuela’s fixed two-party system. His first acts as president were to wipe out illiteracy, establish healthcare clinics in the poorest barrios, and create a brand new constitution based on citizen input and participatory democracy. I wish our democratically elected presidents and governors would strive to empower us with better education, healthcare for all, and new rules to improve our democracy.

3. Attacks by the 1% can Strengthen the 99%. Whether you call it the backfire effect or political jujitsu, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from Venezuela is this: the force the opposition uses against us, the people, can be used as a catalyst that helps us increase our power. Here are three examples during Chávez’ presidency. The 2002 military coup was turned away not by Chávez himself – he was in captivity on an island – but by a mass protest of people in the capital city of Caracas. That military coup backfired and so the 1% tried an economic coup later that year, with an oil company lockout. Although nationalized almost 30 years earlier, the oil company had benefited only the ruling oligarchy while the vast majority of people lived in poverty. In a stunning backfire despite great odds, workers and the Chávez government learned to run the oil company, and in effect, the old 1% managers fired themselves and the people got control. The third attempt was in 2004 when the 1% used the recall powers in the new constitution. In this electoral battle, Chávez supporters organized barrios and pueblos across the nation to get out the “NO!” vote, and the recall was defeated. As a result, the 1% became weaker; and the 99% became stronger and more organized. Backfire!

4. Learn from History. Hugo Chávez taught history in the military, and in the process learned what had worked and what had not worked in people’s struggles in Latin America and beyond. He studied nonviolent movements by reading Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, and he was influenced by liberation theology. A new approach to land redistribution was something I learned about firsthand on the Day of Indigenous Resistance (formerly known as Columbus Day). On that day, our Global Exchange reality tour reached a remote area of Venezuela via three different aircraft: presidential jet (without the president on board), prop plane, and helicopter. Chávez arrived shortly after we did, and was greeted by hundreds of campesinos and our group of a dozen “estadounidenses” (U.S. Americans). It was apparent that he had learned from history: if you simply redistribute land in order to solve the vast inequality of wealth, people might not be able to hang onto the land. Instead, Venezuela’s new plans included these elements: distribute unused government land first before unused private land; give farmers access to credit, equipment, and agricultural training to lay the groundwork for success; prioritize farming cooperatives to help ensure stability over time; and grant temporary use of land leading to permanent ownership after the farmers succeeded in making the land productive. On the return trip to Caracas, Chávez was aboard the presidential jet. There he was, big as life, beaming at everyone.

5. Empower your People, and your Peers, Connect with Everyone. Chávez said that to get people out of poverty, “Give them power.” He also knew it was important to empower peers – heads-of-state across the continent and even across the world. He learned from history that a single country, attempting to strengthen its own sovereignty at the expense of the interests of a super-power, is in a much better position when in partnership with other countries also standing strong. Chávez worked diligently with other South and Central American presidents to fulfill liberator Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America. They built alliances for trade, finance, telecommunications, culture, and governance. Chávez’ approach seemed to be: connect with everyone, even those who oppose you, because there may be a time when their rarely given support could help your mission. When Colombia acted in ways that harmed the region, Chávez initiated meetings to address the matter, and to maintain a working relationship for future times when Colombia would stand with Latin America. Chávez also connected with other heads-of-state around the world, including those in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and he was willing to meet with American presidents from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama.

6. Missions, not Wars. Ten years ago if anyone had told me I would have great enthusiasm for a place where these elements combined forces: government, military, religion, and the oil industry, I would have said, “No way!” But there I was, participating in political delegations to Venezuela as often as my budget would allow. The Bolivarian “missions” were programs focused on literacy, healthcare, food, housing, agriculture, cooperatives, and much more. It struck me that the word “mission” made sense, since it was used in all of those arenas: government, military, industry, and religion. I thought, the U.S. doesn’t use “mission” like that, and so what word do we use? Then I realized, it’s “war” – the war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror. After the Venezuelan oligarchy running the national oil company essentially fired themselves, those earnings were available to benefit all of Venezuela, and the power of the missions increased. The strength of Chávez’ presidency, whether in the streets or in foreign policy, was based on the Bolivarian missions, not on military might.

7. Ideas not Ideology. The goal of the Bolivarian Revolution is to create “socialism of the 21st century.” Chávez and the people at the base (“el base” is the Spanish term for grassroots) aimed to implement that through participatory democracy, operating in what they referred to as “el proceso” rather than by a fixed, top-down plan laid out for the next 5 or 10 years. Significantly, the oil industry had already been nationalized in 1976 but the profits benefited very few Venezuelans. When Chávez became president, his administration did not immediately implement programs to redistribute land and nationalize the means of production across the board. Instead, Venezuela moved steadily toward nationalizing industries when it became possible; toward expropriating abandoned factories for workers to start up production; and toward creating cooperatives – while prioritizing industries essential for all Venezuelans and helping the new entities to succeed by giving them government contracts.

8. Paso a Paso, Step by Step, It All Contributes. In political delegations with the Task Force on the Americas, other participants and I often met with activists who had been organizing for 40 years or more. We asked them how on earth they managed to keep going all that time when the system seemed irretrievably locked into a two-party system with an entrenched oligarchy. The activists smiled and shrugged, “Hay que luchar, paso a paso” – “You have to struggle, step by step.” During all my travels to see firsthand what was happening in Latin America, I gained a new appreciation of history and how you’re never sure what’s going to happen, but when you are committed you can keep moving forward. It becomes clear that everything we’re doing now will be of use once there’s a crack in the seemingly impenetrable system. That crack happened in Venezuela; Chávez was elected; and the country began to turn away from concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1%, toward a sharing of wealth and power in the hands of the 99%.

9. Sometimes Loudmouths are Necessary. If someone had given me the decision about whether or not Chávez should refer to President Bush as the “devil” in a United Nations speech, I probably would have said “no,” but I would have been wrong. I’ll never forget that particular U.N. speech, or the news clip I saw online of a Fox TV reporter saying, “I don’t know what was more disturbing, his blasphemous remarks…. or the amount of applause he got when he finished.” Considering the problems Latin America faced as the “backyard” of the United States, the biggest economic and military super-power the world has ever known, I could see the need to have someone courageous enough to roar, so that others could at least peep.

10. You Don’t have to be Perfect. There were any number of things Chavez said and actions he tried that could be criticized as going too far or not far enough, and yet he never stopped moving toward his mission of a better world. Of the many things Hugo Chávez tried in his life, the one that catapulted him into folk hero status in his country in 1992 was his 90-second speech in which he took responsibility for a military coup attempt that had failed, “por ahora” – for now. The next day the words “por ahora” were written on walls all over the place. Later Hugo Chávez would spend time with Fidel Castro, and together they would agree that the way to go in Latin America was no longer armed revolution. Venezuela is changing through a combination of elements: a strong social movement with people taking to the streets; an electoral revolution including former non-voters like the young and the impoverished taking to the voting booths; local movements building healthier communities; and an unwavering commitment to create a better world.

About Laura Wells: Solutions
I ran for Controller in California in 2014 on a State Bank and Tax The Rich platform. I am part of the “No Corporate Money” Campaign, in which candidates pledge to take no corporate money and voters declare our intention to vote for no-corporate-money candidates. As a Green Party candidate for Governor of California in 2010, I was arrested outside a gubernatorial debate for “trespassing at a private party.” But we won't stop, and so let's create a "public party" where we debate solutions to California's finances, like implementing a State Bank and taxing the rich -- to reduce the disparity and open up opportunities. Twitter: @LauraWellsCA

21 Responses to Ten Things I Learned from Hugo Chávez

  1. Richard Fitzer says:

    I really like “connecting with everyone” and “ideas not ideology.” We connect with others best when we understand that from their experience, their ideas make perfect sense.

  2. Dan De Vries says:

    Thank you for that. I was moved on getting the news to sonnetize

    Hugomandias

    And that’s what they will do. Brand you Hugo-
    mandias. No matter how many CITGO signs
    line Yankee hiways or loom over Fenway.
    Wealth returned to Venezuelan poor
    & the homewrecked in Louisiana post
    Katrina count for little if any
    in the ongoing Louisiana conquest economy.
    Look upon their propaganda and despair.

    It was no doubt a crime against humanity
    to take possession of the fruits of the land
    long held by the ancestors of those upon it dwelling
    & make feckless declaration that “guess what?
    this is ours & we’re going to charge a competitive
    price next time you fill your tank in Michigan.”

  3. Ariane Eroy says:

    Thank you for displaying such courage and persistence: In this case, to stand up to the corporate-controlled media’s disinformation about Hugo Chavez.

    For so many of us, Chavez symbolized goodness, justice, intellectual rigor, and the layered realm of possibilities. His death challenges us to live up to his values–values about inclusion and the importance of making consistent efforts in order to manifesting a better world. While so much of the US government’s foreign policy is based on self interest, Chavez made cheap oil available to everyone from Cuba to the Bronx.

    Let us learn from Hugo Chavez about sharing–sharing all of what we have with those in need, while focusing on healing the environment.

    Let us come together as one human family and save the Planet!

    • nina lasant says:

      I agree and thank Laura Wells for posting ten things. Hugo was so courageous and compassionate and was a genuine hero; noble, steadfast and brave. Not to mention his spirituality. He stated in an interview once that his favorite writer is Walt Whitman!

  4. Rudi Mwongozi says:

    Excellent article Laura…you’re telling it like it is….and your experiences there ar priceless…we need to hear more about them

  5. Frank Lambert says:

    Hi Laura,

    What you just said are the “Ten Commandments” for the 21st Century!
    I certainly agree!

    We’re still mourning the loss of Hugo Chavez. It’s so sad. What a man!

    The Monterey County ‘Alliance for Democracy’ chapter of Move to Amend will be initiating a county-wide resolution on the subject. As you know, little Marina passed the first, “non-binding” resolution, 15 months ago.

    BEST Regards,

    Frank

  6. Cathy Holt says:

    Hi Laura,
    What a wonderful piece of writing, thank you for helping to correct the mis-information the media has forever put out about Chavez. Truly a people’s hero! We’ll be mourning his loss.

    Cathy Holt

  7. Hi, all! Yes, between those little children, Aaron Schwartz, Hugo Chavez…great musicians… quite a sad winter. Let’s vow to do them proud as we keep on going. Like some of you, I, too, do money in politics (The CA Disclose Act, SB 52 to “show who really pays for all political ads, right on the ads.” But, let’s start, this April’s Earth Day, to gather everyone (still coming) and say, Let’s plan a real EARTH DAY next year. Let’s us, who came, take responsibility and show the world the USA is ready, finally, to help heal the earth. And connect them all somehow. What do you think? This is, after all the world’s most pressing problem! See and sign for the bill (SB 52) at ; I’m at dorothyknable@comcast.net, Facebook.

  8. robbear13 says:

    While I appreciate your thoughts, Laura, you missed a lot in point number 5. We need to remember that, like a true dictator, Chávez concentrated power in his own hands, by restructuring the judiciary and imprisoning judges he didn’t like. On the other hand as you note, he did do some creative and helpful things.

    • Ariane Eroy says:

      I would question your use of words, Robbear13. Dictators will be known by their relationship to their people.

      When ever have dictators held as their major aim to uplift and empower their people?

      It is America’s slanted media–ruled by corporations and the war machine– that have crafted an image of Chavez as a dicatator. The oil companies are still fuming that their profits were decreased from 84% to 70% under Chavez. The American government, unduly influenced by special interests, bristles that he mustered the courage, persistence, and impudence to organize Latin America against American cronyism in their lands–a form of influence that is often upheld by violence…

      Americans need to take a good look in the mirror when they use such words as “dictators”, and “terrorists”.

      We have a good deal of work to do to create a true democracy in the United States itself, where highly esteemed, people of color continue to be blocked from positions on Circuit courts and elsewhere.

  9. Pingback: Green Papers: Diverse Views from a Green Perspective

  10. Bill Rowen says:

    Laura — Although your blog was quite comprehensive and mentioned many important things about the late, revered Hugo Chavez, I was somewhat surprised that you didn’t mention an aspect of his personality which I know that you and I have discussed many times at the Lake Merritt Eco-Village. And that, of course, is CHARISMA. I can’t even count how many times you have told me that Hugo Chavez had charisma, but most other world leaders, like Barack Obama, don’t have it. In fact I would like to go so far as to say that Huge Chavez’s charisma hasn’t come to an end. You don’t have to be alive to have charisma! As thousands of people file past his embalmed, glass-encased body in Caracas, they too will feel his charisma for a very long time to come. This kind of reverence was deemed totally appropriate for great leaders of the past like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tsse-Tung, and so it is for Hugo Chavez, too. Someday, on a Reality Tour, or just on your own, I know that you will visit Hugo Chavez again and once again observe his charisma. Shame on those nasty Russians who are saying that, for some reason I can’t comprehend, Lenin’s body needs to be buried after all these years. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hugo Chavez attracts at least as many visitors as Lenin does (millions have been there, over the years) — and probably more.

    • Re-read number one! Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that his charisma, based on his commitment to what was needed by the people, will live on. I was on KPFA this morning — http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/89647 — and after the show we talked about how Venezuelans are saying “Yo soy Chavez!” I understand that saying. We were shaken by his passing, and in a way we were also strengthened. An American friend who has lived in Venezuela for 28 years said that Chavez helped people mature, to become adults, to come of age, to do what we’re here to do.

    • Nina lasant says:

      Yes his charisma you can say was wielded appropriately. He appeared to use it as a gift rather than for his own benefit. It makes me think about magnetism also. The people of Venezuela resonated with him.

    • Dolores Helman says:

      I think it is important to get news on Venezuela in terms of US pushing for recount. We need to get information out to the public possibly with a program at BFUU with Latin music, food,etc

  11. phil allen says:

    Will the mantle of progressive leadership in South America (I don’t know its other names) now be assumed by Evo Morales and the re-elected Ecuadorian president? And will the US set about with troubling vigor to destabilize the agenda of the, uh, Venezuelan Truman?
    I will apply these ten points.

  12. dc_us says:

    Hi Laura, it was so nice seeing you at the Jill Stein campaign school (I’m editing the video from it right now). Can you give me a call this week I’d like to do lunch so we can coordinate on the 2014 campaigns. http://www.votedavidcurtis.org

  13. Pingback: Ten Things I Learned from Hugo Chávez | Alameda County Green Party Blog

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  15. Pingback: Leaders: Do we need them? Thinking about Fidel and Hugo | Laura Wells Solutions

  16. Pingback: Venezuela, Equality, and Oil | Laura Wells Solutions

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