When I first came here last September, the country was in high hopes. The presidential elections were only weeks away, and the nation was draped in red. The streets were splattered with fresh political art, and of course, everywhere I went there were rallies.
This week, the country has been mobilising again, but it’s not the same. The joy I saw last year has been replaced by shock and sadness.
The death of President Hugo Chavez has been a long time coming. He’s struggled with cancer for two years, and after more than 2 months in hospital, it seemed unlikely that he would fulfil his full term. Yet, when the news finally came, it still managed to catch the nation off guard.
Since then, there’s been an unbelievable, collective outpouring of grief. For the first few hours Chavistas were in shock. In my neighbourhood everyone opened their houses. Some people stood in their doorways, as if they feared setting foot in this new world. Others were on the street, asking their neighbours what had just happened. At first nobody really seemed sure what to do.
As the week of mourning continues, people are coming to terms with reality. Chavez is gone, but the revolution isn’t over. If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it’s that Venezuelans are just as determined as ever.
As one journalist here pointed out, this is something that “needed to happen”. Despite the obvious grief people are feeling here, I suspect many people feel the same. Chavez gave the Bolivarian Revolution a human face. People here don’t just love his policies; many are in love with him. However, his charisma inspired not only mass appeal, but something that seems to me like a cult of personality, afflicting a small minority of his supporters.
While it’s nice to see a politician that people actually like, this cult is problematic. Sure, a leader that genuinely inspires hope is better than the dull ‘lesser evil’ approach that afflicts many democracies (and pseudo-democracies, for that matter). In Australia, every few years we’re given a choice between two candidates that no one really connects with, let alone likes. Venezuelans recognise there are problems, but also have some faith in the ability of the government to act in the interests of the people.
However, Venezuela’s problems cannot ever be overcome by just one person. Despite a massive reduction, it’s not hard to find poverty here. On my third day in Venezuela I went for a walk in the upmarket suburb of Altamira, where families live in massive, multi-story mansions surrounded by layer upon layer of fencing. They’re sometimes called birdcages here. This isn’t just an aesthetic comment, it’s an existential one. Behind their manicured lawns and armed guards, these elite live in a different world to the majority of Venezuelans.
Just a few stops down the metro line, I found Petare; the largest slum in Caracas. There violence is endemic. The poor live much better than they did in the 1990’s, but are still recognisably far worse off than their counterparts in Altamira.
Venezuela still faces serious challenges from women’s rights to security and corruption. Yet according to some, over the years the omnipresent grin appearing on posters, street art, advertisements and t-shirts told some people that they don’t need to keep fighting- Chavez has it covered. As the journalist argued, now that he’s gone, Venezuelans will be reminded that this whole revolution didn’t start with Chavez- it started with them. It started when ordinary Venezuelans rose up and demanded change.
This is something that is rarely acknowledged in the West, where there is the opposition, and the tyrant. Certainly, the opposition are a force here. In recent days many have been celebrating. However, Chavez was only one component of a movement that has come from all corners of the country, from the urban slums to the campesinos.
I haven’t been here long, but already I get why Venezuelans have been so successful in their revolution. It’s the same reason why I can have a decent conversation with anyone on the street (my appalling Spanish permitting) about politics. Irrelevant of what side of the political divide they hail from, everyone here is switched on to what their leaders are doing. The apathy that afflicts so many countries simply doesn’t exist here.
The lesson for people the world over is that popular power can instigate social change. When we in the West complain about the state of politics, we can’t just blame those at the top. I mean, what have you done today to try and improve your government’s policy?
What have you done to create a revolution?
So while I can see that the Chavez administration has done a lot of good here, it’s also self evident that it’s not all thanks to president. I don’t believe any government will ever operate in the interests of the people if it isn’t forced to do so by persistent, popular struggle. The Chavez administration has achieved great things, but only because so many Venezuelans have become so passionately involved in politics.
The revolution didn’t start with Chavez, and it wont end with him either.