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Saying Goodbye to Comandante Chavez

March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez

While working in Caracas from 2006-2009, I would regularly tune in whenever Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would address the nation, which he did constantly and usually for hours on end.  I seldom paid close attention for more than 30 minutes or so as the actual content of his comments often either bored me to death with minutia or simply pissed me off.  But even after drifting into other activities, I would leave the television on and let the voice of President Chavez serve as my background music; and I do mean music.  I loved his voice and grew to find his cadence and tone soothing.  His voice relaxed me.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

One Saturday in early June of 2007, I was semi-listening to Chavez address a huge crowd of followers that had been called into the streets in demonstration of support for something that I no longer recall.  My half-hearted awareness became rapt attention when I realized he was extensively quoting Antonio Gramsci, the early 20th century Italian writer, philosopher, and Marxist thinker.  Chavez spent a full 40 minutes explaining Gramsci’s theory of revolutionary change in great detail to his flag-waving devotees.  I kept wondering who other than breathless undergraduates even read Gramsci anymore, let alone attempted to impart to tens of thousands of gyrating sycophants the particulars of Gramsci’s missives on the growth of popular power via the establishment of a working class cultural hegemony.

As Chavez went on and on, the mass of red-shirted supporters in front of him jumped from cheer to cheer, seemingly oblivious to the lesson in political development theory they were receiving.  They waved banners with pictures of Chavez, Simon Bolivar, Salvador Allende, and others and held their breath for each time the Comandante referred to himself in the third person so they could burst into a mass orgasm of applause and roars.  I was engrossed.

Back in my college days when I was buying my own personal copies of Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and arriving early to hear visiting Sandinista ministers rail against imperialism, I had played at study of Gramsci.  I learned enough to be impressed with my own efforts and even cited Gramsci in a paper I wrote which attempted to objectively and unemotionally describe the ideology of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas separate from their bloodthirsty actions:

“Antonio Gramsci has also written about the need for a proletarian attitude.  He stresses the importance of a revolutionary proletariat developing its own ‘superstructure’ prior to taking power.  He argues that understanding of proletarian ideology does not appear from ‘haphazard and sporadic germination’ but through experience (Gramsci 1957, p. 187).  Shining Path agrees with these arguments and sees the long period of democratic revolution as a time when the peasants and petty bourgeoisie will come to recognize Maoism as the ‘correct’ ideology.”

And now here was Chavez matter-of-factly offering up Gramsci’s complicated ideas to his generally lower economic strata and relatively less educated followers, literally Venezuela’s proletariat and peasant classes.  Most remarkable was his seeming sincere belief that his masses deserved to be treated as being fully capable of comprehending the ideas he was illuminating.

Now that he’s gone, I’ll remember Hugo Chavez’s willingness to lie and cheat and divert blame to accomplish his goals.  I’ll remember his anti-democratic actions and his systematic centralization of political power in his hands alone.  I’ll remember his readiness to cynically manipulate people and information whenever it suited his political and ideological ends.

I’ll also remember him as a tireless advocate for the right of the poor, ignored, and uneducated to be heard and to exercise influence over those who govern them.  Even more, I’ll remember his success in convincing those same marginalized folk to enthusiastically buy into his vision and to learn to act on it.  As Venezuelans rightly begin to cast off the excesses and drastic inefficiencies of Chavismo in the course of these coming post-Chavez years, I hope they nonetheless retain the newly politicized underclass that Chavez engendered, an underclass capable of effectively asserting its weight and demanding the attention of political leaders.

I’m sorry to see you go this way, Comandante.  You should have lost power through an eventual electoral defeat resulting from your own increasing missteps and political overreach, not due to this merciless disease.  Your mistakes and conceit should have done you in, leaving you to bluster away into revolutionary oblivion while those who followed you in power selectively picked up and ran with your few, but substantial, achievements in political empowerment.  Mostly, I’ll miss the calming effect of your voice in the background.

Farewell, Comandante

From → Ideas

One Comment
  1. Maun and I are going to spend the month of May in Long Beach, putting us within striking distance of the L.A. Philharmonic. Not being able to resist the temptation, we bought tickets to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the orchestra in the famed Disney Hall. When asked about Chavez and Venezuela Dudamel responded: “I am a product of the collective.” We love it.

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