By Takura Zhangazha*
South America would not have been part of southern African liberation historiography had it not been for the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro and its deliberate acts of solidarity toward and with liberation movements across the African continent. In the aftermath of the Cold War, this solidarity has generally been wished away by those that would like to selectively rewrite our understanding of our own struggle history as Africans as well as do away with any affinity we may have had to socialist ideas and visions of our society. That was until Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution arrived not only in Venezuela but also onto the global stage.
Given the fact that most of us in Zimbabwe and in Africa were enamored to Western hegemony via an expanding global media, we did not quite understand what Chavez was all about. We saw him on global media networks with Fidel Castro or alternatively raving and ranting against what he referred to as American imperialism. And still we did not comprehend what Chavez was about. We initially viewed him from the narrow prism of the West which had somehow persuaded us that we had reached some sort of ‘end of history’ and therefore there was no alternative to free market capitalist ideology. That was until thecoup in Venezuela in 2002 where Chavez was ousted only to be brought back to power via popular support and demonstrations on the streets of not only Caracas but other cities and towns of the country. That’s when I personally started taking an interest in the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. The question was, how is this leader who has been ousted via a coup, as was generally typical of Latin America, back in power and popularly so?
It turns out Chavez had irked the oil industry barons in his country through his nationalization programmes as well as his intentions to ensure social service delivery to the poor majority of Venezuela. He had also stood up to the United States’ hegemony in South America and was therefore a departure from pliant leaders to whom the north had become accustomed to. He also had the wrong ‘friends’ globally and was challenging for the reform of the United Nations Security Council as well as speaking against the Iraq invasion of 2003. His friendship and solidarity with not only Cuba but also the Global South was evidently irritating to the West and he was therefore generally derided in the mainstream international media for having dictatorial tendencies. Regardless he still went on to win four elections that were regarded by international and local observers as free and fair and his country continues to be regarded as a functional constitutional democracy, even by its most acerbic detractors.
In mourning Chavez from Zimbabwe and from Africa it is key that we remember him for his principled global leadership example and his people centered policies and politics. Whether one views these same said policies as socialist or social democratic, Chavez demonstrated organic leadership of his society and peoples. It was a leadership that had a direct link to the concerns for the poor majority and understood that the state, whatever else it does, is there to protect its citizens. He did not change the fundamental democratic tenets of Venezuelan society but he did not take kindly to what he perceived as foreign influence on it, particularly after the failed coup in 2002. His domestic record however remains the prerogative of Venezuelans to judge but from an African perspective, it showed that a different style and approach to political leadership is possible. Chavez showed Africa and our leaders that a leadership that is less enamored to the Washington Consensus as well as grounded in the realities of the people and that utilizes national resources for the common good is possible.
Chavez also carried on the tradition of solidarity with the global south in tandem with the example set by his close friend and mentor Fidel Castro. In a letter sent from him to the Africa-South America Summit held in February 2013, Chavez insisted that ‘we must unite’ for sustainable development and for the benefit of all our peoples. Key to this statement is the fact that Chavez abhorred ‘mimic’ leadership that sought more to appease the West than to deliver to the people and poor majority. And this has been a key challenge of African leadership, which portends an inability to understand that leadership is not about replicating the policies and dictat of the West but more about organic linkages with the people and trying out methods that benefit the majority and not the few.
Indeed there will be numerous obituaries written about Chavez and his leadership style but from my own perspective, he represented hope for the poor and the eternally oppressed Global South. He stood up where others chose to meekly sit down and he represented those that never thought they stood a chance at recognition or a better life. Hugo Chavez was and is a contemporary revolutionary and we are better off for having known his leadership, no matter the controversies.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in personal capacity(takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)