How did Hugo Chávez become an icon for the global left?

In response to a question recently posed in the Financial Times:

From Simón Bolívar to Che Guevara, Latin America has pedigree when it comes to producing iconic figures of revolutionary politics. This was no less the case when Hugo Chávez took the reins of Venezuela in 1999 at a bleak time for the international left: with the collapse of the Soviet Union barely written into the history books and China moving apace into the unfettered capitalism we see today, even traditional forces of the left in Western Europe had shuffled towards the centre ground in the quest for electability, viz. New Labour in 1997.

Not for the first time, leftist movements worldwide were left grasping for an idol, and they found this in Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century”, a package of Marxist labour and democratic principles coupled with a Bolivarian emphasis on political and economic self-sufficiency for Latin American nations, a shot across the bows of leftist bête noire the USA, after a century of interference in the affairs of its southern neighbours.

In short, the left needed an icon and Chávez provided; as that sage of early 21st Century socialist thought Ken Livingstone put it, Hugo Chávez was “the best news out of Latin America in many years”.

But to truly achieve iconic status among the world’s would-be revolutionaries, Chávez had to deliver his new brand of international socialism. While it was another matter of fortunate political timing that Chávez entered government at the vanguard of the Pink Tide, the flood of left-leaning governments elected in Latin America in the early 2000s, it was also a feat of visionary organization that allowed him to emerge as their figurehead and position himself as that rarest of things in the fractured world of leftist politics: a unifier.

Bringing together Latin American “new left” leaders in collective mistrust of perceived American imperialism was a predictably straightforward task. Yet it took considerable political acumen – and commitment to Bolivarian ideals – to play an instrumental role in the creation of organizations for regional political and economic cooperation, notably the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and BancoSur, the South American-orientated monetary fund. The effort to foster international collaboration and economic development between a group of self-styled “progressive” governments chimed with strains of internationalist leftist thought that had been striving to show a face different to the insularity of past socialist regimes.  The figure of Hugo Chávez offered them the opportunity for association with a fresh breed of international socialist for a new global left.

Among Chávez’s transnational projects was TeleSUR, the politically partisan Caracas-based news and broadcasting agency. This foray into media demonstrated his keen grasp on the power of image projection to cement internal support and garner international acclaim. The seeds of this understanding were sown early in Chávez’s political career. A ringleader of the 1992 attempted coup against the government of Carlos Pérez, where he failed in regime change he succeeded in public relations; at his arrest, his laconic comment that the revolution had failed “for now” made him a media star and symbol of resistance to an oppressive administration.

After his election 7 years later, the propaganda machine took a more conventional turn, albeit with a uniquely Bolivarian message and aesthetic, directed through the state-run Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information and his ruling United Socialist Party’s Commission of Propaganda, Agitation and Communication. But Chávez never lost his personal touch. A prominent feature of his 14 years in office was his weekly television show, Aló Presidente, featuring everything from taking calls with ordinary Venezuelans to policy announcements and interviews with such luminaries as Naomi Campbell; a cocktail infamously dubbed a “mix of Jay Leno and Mussolini” by Foreign Policy magazine. Creating a platform to cultivate his personal image and leverage his undoubted personal charisma underlined his media savvy. Polemical and never far away from an international front page, Hugo Chávez offered an accessible rallying cry – often in the literal sense – for the left, whilst simultaneously developing iconic status in the minds of a global media audience

However, even the most PR friendly and politically astute leaders need a slice of good fortune; for Hugo Chávez, this was oil. At its peak, 96% of Venezuelan export income was derived from oil, the petrodollar financing many of the social programmes, Bolivarian Missions and Communal Councils that endeared him to ordinary Venezuelans and allowed him to present his administration as a socialist success story to the international community.

That this success was illusory is obvious; the drop off in world oil prices in mid-2014 brought with it the seizing-up the Venezuelan economy and the end of so much social beneficence. But in this regard, Hugo Chávez had one final, ironic stroke of luck. His death in March 2013 prevented his seeing – and being held accountable for, his critics suggest – the effective collapse of Venezuela by the mid-2010s, and spared him the anguish of watching the piecemeal dissolution of the various Pink Tide governments he had fostered by a “new right” in Latin America. Personally, Hugo Chávez went to the communal tractor factory in the sky on a high, undefeated and with his star undimmed.

In essence, Hugo Chávez’s iconic status owes itself to 3 things: Fortuitous timing in international politics and domestic economics, fertile ground for his ideas on the political left, and a statesman’s understanding of the power of image-craft to create an aura that his well-timed exit preserves.

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