The right was basking in capitalist triumphalism and the left in socialist pessimism. The triumph of the right was mirrored on the left by a sharp contraction of socialist ideas and aspirations. But few individual souls never completely submitted to capitalist logic and its presuppositions.
Thus the election of a leftist President in Venezuela in 1998 foreshadowed what would, in the seven years that followed, become a wave of success for left-leaning presidential candidates in a major portion of Latin America. The Latin American leftist wind started to blow, so to speak, early in the 21st century which saw Luis da Silva coming to power in Brazil in 2002, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador in 2003, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay in 2004, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005, Rafael Correa Delgado in Ecuador in 2006 and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2006. Whether these developments were merely coincidental or the direct influence of Chavez political philosophy and influence is a mood question. I’m not here suggesting that these were hard-core socialist presidents.
But the point is that these were Latin American presidents who, at great risk to their countries, defied the capitalist control of their economies by outsiders and decided to do what they thought was right for their people. Thus Chavez, in particular, has defied the idea on which the US hegemony is built – that of universalised norms that do not allow differences in political and economic outlook. This is a far cry from our African leaders who have been advocating globalisation willy-nilly and in a very meritocratic fashion forgetting that globalisation is the very transmission belt through which the continuing exploitation of their countries resources are stolen.
But the remaining leftist intellectuals and activists are aware that capitalism in Africa has produced poverty amidst gross excess of wealth. People say Africa should look East for salvation, basically referring to China and partly India. What many in Africa and their foreign advisors tend to ignore is that China has its own long term political and economic agenda which does not necessarily mirror the interest of Africans. In fact, just like the Russian elites, the Chinese elites have become susceptible to the magnetism of American material and cultural success and have hesitated to imitate them. Thus they are also in the race for capitalist hegemony and material exploitation of raw material all over the world – especially the exploited and still exploitable Africa.
The re-election of the leftist Chavez to a fourth term should open a window of opportunity for the left to come out of the closet and discuss in non-capitalist terms the problems that are facing the majority of people world-wide. For too long the left had put an ideological ban (self-censorship) on discussions about imperialism (whether American, Chinese etc.) and capitalist exploitation and the concomitant poverty and social injustices engendered by such a system. I think Chavez has given us the opportunity to speak freely and proudly about radical change and socialism.
We must start debating the meaning and type of ‘socialism for the 21st century’ as Chavez would put it and start to imagine that there is another possible world beyond the neo-classical economic orthodoxy that is being drilled into our heads on a daily basis, whether you are reading a newspaper, listening to a radio or watching a TV. And I’m not just talking about discussing these ideas in the abstract in seminar rooms, but talking to the leaders as well as the people about the kind of changes Chavez has been and is trying to make in Venezuela since he came to power.
What did he do or what is he doing? Unlike some leading oil-producing countries in Africa like Angola and Nigeria where they are using the petro-dollar to enrich the leaders, their families and their cronies; Chavez has, since coming to power in 1998, been using the oil revenue to address the issue of poverty and to uplift his people and this seems to be working.
The Washington Post, citing statistics from the United Nations and the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, poverty in Venezuela stood at 28 percent in 2008 down from 55.44 percent in 1998 before Chavez got into office. And the economist Mark Weisbrot found that, during the economic expansion, the poverty rate was cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent.
These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does take into account increased access to health care or education. Chavez has done much to challenge the rampant neo-liberal model of development. It is now up to those who believe in a just and egalitarian society to speak up.