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Hugo Chavez and the struggle for alternatives

By Paul T. Shipale
The African continent is still engulfed by the huge socioeconomic challenges and unfulfilled aspirations that underpinned the struggles for independence. The contribution of progressive leaders, who are peoplecentred, and the dialectical link with propoor policies that utilise the huge resource wealth endowments of their countries to genuinely address the aspirations of the majority of the people, is much needed in the postcolonial African development agenda, which has sadly been sidestepped and/ or subverted in favour of a distorted confirmist (neoliberal) project, which in turn has helped to maintain inherited unequal colonial relations.

It is in this context that the exemplary leadership of statesmen and women in Latin America, such as Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, Jacobo Arbenz, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner, Michelle Bachelet, Rafael Correa, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, has important lessons for our continent because Africa has recently sorely lacked in leadership what these leaders have provided to the poor majorities of their countries.

Despite the huge challenges of backwardness and imperialist belligerence, these leaders have led the struggle on behalf of their populations against the overbearing hegemony of multinational corporations, economic stabilisation driven by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution are important examples that are instructive for leaders and progressive political forces in the developing world in general and the African continent in particular.

Over the years Chavez, together with Fidel Castro, became the voices of the oppressed and icons of ordinary people's struggles for freedom from hunger, misery, marginalisation and exclusion. For the poor, Chavez and Fidel were pointing the way and demonstrating that it is indeed possible to undertake an alternative trajectory to neoliberalism and its antecedent polices as prescribed by the World Bank and IMF, unequal trade in favour of powerful nations and militaristic hegemonism.

As Africans we ask ourselves why African leaders cannot copy at least some of the elements of the work of those leaders in Latin America, who are deploying the mineral wealth of their countries for the benefit of the majority and not the elites? This is a fundamental question because for almost 50 odd years after decolonization; the continent continues to lag behind in efforts to addressing the plight of the majority the poor, rural peasantry, women, and the youth. The continent is said to be endowed with large resourcewealth with long life spans. Instead of this being a blessing for purposes of advancing the material, cultural and other aspects of the African people it has become an albatross, as almost every intervention is a scramble for these resources.

The Bolivarian Revolution

Chavez sought to improve the conditions of the underclass and confront ideologues of liberalism. In particular, he channeled resource revenues from oil into education and health - something so critically needed by the poor, who are the overwhelming majority of the population. These are measures that are characterised as populist, but they meet the real needs of the people and help them to develop their capacities. Yet, it is not only the direction of oil wealth to the people that is characteristic and unique in Venezuela. There has also been a very significant process of empowering people - of creating institutions that permit people to function democratically and to make decisions that affect their lives. In particular, the Bolivarian Revolution has imbued the people with a sense of dignity, patriotism, social consciousness and internationalist pride.

That Chavez was in many ways the embodiment of the aspirations of ordinary people and the underclass in his country, region and the world, is indisputable. A quintessential outsider, he was a man who had tried to overthrow the system in a coup and subsequently embraced elections as he struck a chord with the millions of shantytown dwellers, who were seething over the vast gap wealth between the rich and poor. And not surprisingly, he was supported by the poor, who are the majority in Venezuela. However his policies have brought him into conflict with the oligarchy, ruling elites and their proxies the world over, and when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September 2006, he had already made his mark on the world stage. Therefore, when he declared; "...the devil came here yesterday ... the president of the United States";

he endeared himself to the majority that he was a man (a State President) who was willing to take on the most powerful nation on earth, in a conscious emulation of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar - his torch! Not surprisingly the ruling elites and mainstream media have over the years castigated and abused Chavez. Others are at pains to undermine his and the Bolivarian Revolution's achievements and seek to paint these as populist votebuying measures which are 'bad' because they don't meet the set criteria of liberal's logic of profitmaking and rentseeking. It is also an indisputable fact that Chavez's opposition has been backed via direct funding for the socalled promotion of democracy as well as to sway voters to ditch Chavez and Chavismo because the privileges enjoyed in an earlier period were dissipating in front them.

The struggle against hegemony and domination Chavez's foreign policy was based on a vision of what he called 'Our commitment to peace and justice in the world' and 'Socialism of the 21st Century' -. He took up the cudgels for various causes such as the Palestinians' right to selfdetermination along the 1964 proposals, among others. The Latin American regional alliances that emerged are seeking to shape the democratic space and shift the balance of power in favour of their nations. Blocks such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which advances an avantgarde experiment of progressive and antiimperialist government, is seeking ways to breaking the prevailing international unipolar world order and strengthening the capacity of the people to face, together, the reigning powers.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is a political bloc that federates the 12 nations sovereign states of South America with the purpose of grouping them under what Simon Bolivar called, 'a Nation of Republics'. Furthermore, there are the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). It may be a long time before we see another personality of comparable charisma on the political stage. Such people cannot be replaced. Chavez and Fidel demonstrated that it is indeed possible to undertake an alternative trajectory to neoliberalism.

"The people of Africa must therefore look beyond the proclamation of independence to discover whether or not real freedom has been achieved. Freedom can only be real when national independence is coupled with social and economic revolution carried out in the interests of the masses of the people." (George Maxwell, African Communist, 1959)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper and are not in any way connected to my position but merely reflect my personal opinion as a citizen.


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