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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 13, March 16, 2013

Tribute: Hugo Chavez and New Socialism

Wednesday 20 March 2013


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

The philosophy of New Socialism of Hugo Chavez was primarily fashioned by his own childhood days where he had experienced the poverty-stricken dark side of life, and his mother Rosa who taught him how to integrate with the poor and to relate to the historical roots of Venezuela.

His formative years were highly complex but he learnt to cope with the complexities of life which helped him in later years to deal firmly with the onslaught of the neoliberal challenges to the modern Venezuelan society. Chavez’s relationship with the Venezuelan history was intrinsically integrated. It was explicitly revealed at the time of the founding of the Fifth Republic. “The Fifth Republic that Chavez now aimed at founding would be the first new start for the country for 140 years. His movement, he said, would have a national and popular character. It would seek to recover the ideals of the past, and would be founded on the ideas of Bolivar.”1

Hugo Chavez was much influenced by Simon Bolivar whom he treated as the great liberator, and who also taught him to oppose the social evils. Simon Rodriguez was another great influence as the teacher-friend of Simon Bolivar and a great educationist of his time; Rodriguez governed Chavez’s ideas about the reforms in education which he implemented in his time. Ezequiel Zamora was a socialist of the pre-Marxian age and had a larger vision about the reform of society. He had thought about land reforms and Chavez was much attracted towards him.

Two other influences on his thoughts also require some treatment. One was his participation in the 150th anniversary celebrations in Peru related to the battle of Ayacucho. This event influenced him much to think about the past glory with a nationalistic mind. But the major contribution in his ideological development was made by Ruiz Guevara who taught him many of the philosophical concepts of communism, socialism and exposed him to the great people of the country. He also came across the Social Contract of Rousseau. Chavez himself accepted that “many of their talks (with Ruiz Guevara) focused on Bolivar, Zamora, Maisanta and other historical Venezuelan figures”.2

Che Guevara was yet another influence upon him and his youth was spent in understanding the philosophical and pragmatic mechanisms of these leaders in order to remove the disparities which had cropped up in the Venezuelan society particularly after the revenues earned by the oil business had largely benefited the rich and a certain section of the middle class. This gulf continuously penetrated his psyche which was already matured by exposure to different philosophical streams of socialism and communism.

This was the time when at the young age of only 23 he realised that it was altogether futile to fight against those who were his own, his own countrymen. After coming out of the military academy in 1975, he was put to face the guerrillas but this event transformed his attitude about the Army negatively. “Chavez was supposed to be fighting the guerrillas. But by the time he was sent on his first full fledged counterinsurgency mission to hunt guerrillas in the mountains of Angoategui in October 1977, he was starting to feel some sympathy towards the people who were supposedly the enemy. He kept a diary during the mission between October 21 and November 18. It reveals a driven young officer drawn to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, resentful of US ‘imperialism’, proud of Venezuelan indigenous culture and convinced he is destined for great things even though at the moment his work is tedious.”3

Hugo Chavez was now convinced that a new ideological platform was the need of the hour. His next fifteen years were full of activities and culminated in a failed coup attempt in 1992 against Carlos Andres Perez after which he was put in prison but released after two years. By this time he was developing his alternative model for Venezuela. His consolidation was on the increase and in the election of 1998, Irene, a beauty queen, stood against him but his charismatic personality, ideological presentation, relationship with those who were weak and poor, his ideas about a new Venezuela had been attracting the masses. Since that year Hugo Chavez became an icon in his own right and continued so till the end of his life. The referendum of 2004 and re-elections in 2006 and 2012 consoli-dated that position. He resurrected socialism after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 in a highly successful manner. He remained undefeated in his political life, thoughts and action.

His opposition to the neoliberal challenges was therefore the result of those philosophical roots which were consistently being nurtured by the everlasting fertile soil of Venezuelan history and culture. This had affected his emotional psyche which was simultaneously sharply overpowered by the stark inequality in society. It left a great impression on his mind though with considerable bitterness and sorrow as he had come from the same milieu as the dispo-ssessed. He objectively accepted that “Latin America still has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world—‘gold medalists’ in inequality”.4 All this led him to present his concept of New Socialism. There emerged “a new path, sometimes between ‘savage capitalism’ and failed communism. He called it socialism for the twentyfirst century.”5

 New Socialism had a clear focus on the downtrodden, nationalisation of the economic enterprises and an attempt to bridge the gulf between those who were on the streets with those who flaunted their wealth for no reason. Chavez himself defined the basic premise of New Socialism. New Socialism was “the extension of Bolivar’s thinking”.6 It included many things including the pragmatic models to save the oppressed people. It is worthwhile to note that “just as Bolivar liberated Venezuela, Chavez frees his supporters, the Chavists, whom he positions as the oppressed victim of Venezuelan society, a troubled people who have been essentially denied their fair share of the country’s wealth”.7

The ideological basis of New Socialism was also nurtured by the socialistic thoughts of Ezequiel Zamora. His three main concerns ‘land and free man, general elections, hatred towards oligarchy’(Gott) provided a sort of base to the philosophy of Chavez’s New Socialism.

New Socialism was not governed by the strict theoretical postulates given by different philosophers, as he evolved a newer dimension of socialism in Latin America which focused on the consolidation of this thought at the regional level in order to face the challenges of the capitalist world. It focused on regional integration.

This dimension has played an important role in providing the alternative platform to the people of the continent. This can be seen in the establishment of the ALBA. “Formed in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba, the ALBA is an alternative to US free trade agreements in the region and seeks to address unjust terms of trade by engaging in commerce on the basis of solidarity and cooperation. ALBA nations currently include; Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Bermuda. The governments of Haiti, Surinam and St. Lucia also attended the event as ‘participant observers’.”8

New Socialism is closely linked to demo-cracy. For Chavez no ideology is impregnated with any value if it suppresses human creativity and growth.”21st Century Socialism is supposed to be less state dependent and not repressive. It is supposed to involve a political socialism that Chávez has occasionally talked about, by which he means participatory democracy, where citizens are involved in self-governance in a much more direct form than they are in repre-sentative democracy.”9

The application of New Socialism was very fast and quite impressive. After assuming power Chavez was always in a hurry to ameliorate the conditions of the masses. He had analysed that it was the oil sector revenue in the country which was creating class division based on the unequal distribution of money. He analysed that its increased revenue could be used to fund his dream social programmes. He therefore went to control the PDVSA, the oil giant, standing at 36th in the Fortune Global 500 companies, and termed as a giant structure due to its all powerful position in the economic system of Venezuela. He also succeeded in activating the OPEC. The oil sector is a dominant export earner of the country; it was used by Chavez successfully in increasing the oil revenues which helped his programmes for the poor to run smoothly. Social infrastructure as health, education were the major focus. He “devoted government resources to backing popular organisations and social projects such as mass literacy campaigns”.10

He also went for land reforms by concen-trating on the landless and marginal ones. His programme for nationalisation was also in full swing. “Chavez (had) championed the social reforms and institutions of popular power, including the nationalisation of some factories under the control of workers.”11

He further introduced many such programmes which were purely concentrated towards the deprived section of the masses. For this section of society the problems start with the dawn of the day and do not end even in their sleep. In this respect Plan Bolivar 2000 remained an important component of his approach of ‘support to poor’. “Plan Bolivar 2000 that builds and renovates schools, clinics, day nurseries, roads and housing for the poor(and) agrarian reform programmes, and worker’s cooperatives. At the same time, he has established MERCAL, a state company that provides subsidised staple foodstuffs to the poor.”12

All such measures have changed much in Venezuela. The success of New Socialism attests that governance in the poor and developing countries can create wonders if power elites have the will, vision and commitment to the masses. Hugo Chavez proved it. He is destined to be a part of the folklore of the Venezuelan society in the years to come.


1. Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso Books, 2011.

2. Bart Jones, Hugo! : The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Random House, 2009.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Laura Mixon, Use of the authorising figure, authoritarian charisma and national myth in the discourse of Hugo Chavez: toward a critical model of rhetorical analysis for political discourse, Proquest, 2009.

7. Ibid.

8. Rachael Boothroy, “ALBA advances towards ‘Alternative Economic Model’, pursues anti-imperialist agenda”, February 6, 2012,

9. Gregory Wilpert and Michael Albert, “Tackling institutions one by one”, March 6, 2013,

10. Alan Maass, Howard Zinn, The Case for Socialism, Haymarket Books, 2010.

11. Ibid.

12. Max G. Manwaring, “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivarian Socialism, and Asymmetric Warfares” (Monograph), 2005, US Army War College,

Dr Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at

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