Hugo Chavez and Socialism, by Bill Van Auken, wsws.org

Hugo Chavez

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas to accompany the casket of President Hugo Chavez to the military academy where he began his career and where his body lay in state before today’s funeral.

The former paratrooper lieutenant colonel had been in power for 14 years, and the outpouring reflected popular support for the undeniable, albeit limited, improvements in social conditions for the country’s most impoverished layers under his presidency. This includes a halving of the poverty rate, which still remains above Latin America’s average.

In Washington, the Obama administration issued a cautious statement calling Chavez’s demise a “challenging time” and declaring its hope that the change in leadership in Caracas would promote “a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”

Republican leaders in Congress openly celebrated the Venezuelan leader’s death. Typical was Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who declared, “Good riddance to this dictator.”

Chavez’s nationalist rhetoric, his government’s diversion of revenues from the country’s protracted oil bonanza to pay for social assistance programs and its forging of extensive economic ties to China earned him the hatred of both Washington and a fascistic ruling class layer in Venezuela. They did not, however—as both he and his pseudo-left supporters claimed—represent a path to socialism.

Chavez was a bourgeois nationalist, whose government rested firmly on the military from which he came and which continues to serve as the crucial arbiter in the affairs of the Venezuelan state.

While bitterly resented by a reactionary Venezuelan oligarchy, whose preferred method of dealing with the country’s impoverished masses is murder and torture, Chavez’s misiones, or programs to improve living standards, housing, health care and education, made no serious encroachment on profit interests.

Both the share of the country’s economy controlled by the private sector and the portion of national income going to employers as opposed to labor were greater under Chavez than before he took office. An entire new ruling class layer—dubbed the boliburguesia— was spawned by chavismo, growing rich off of government contracts, corruption and financial speculation.

Meanwhile, the “Bolivarian revolution” has done nothing to alter Venezuela’s status as a nation dependent upon and oppressed by imperialism. The country’s economy is still wholly dependent upon the export of oil (the largest share to the US) and the import of both capital and consumer goods.

In last November’s presidential election, Chavez publicly appealed for the support of the wealthy and privileged, insisting that his policies promoted social peace and stability and warded off the threat of civil war.

Chavez had ample reason to promote his policies with the left rhetoric of an ill-defined “21st Century Socialism.” The aim, first and foremost, was to divert and contain the militancy of the Venezuelan workers, whose struggles, to the extent they escape the control of the ruling PSUV (Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela) and its affiliated Bolivarian trade union federation, are often branded as “counterrevolutionary.”

However, an entire layer of the international pseudo-left—including various organizations and individuals who have in the past cast themselves as “Trotskyists”—attempted to lend credence to this “socialist” rhetoric. This reached ludicrous levels, such as the hailing of Chavez’s call for a “Fifth International,” which was issued in a rambling speech to a November 2009 gathering of “left” parties in Caracas that included delegations from the Chinese Communist Party, the Brazilian Workers Party, Argentina’s Peronist Partido Justicialista and the PRI of Mexico.

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