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Remembering Hugo Chávez: A Legacy That Lives On In Africa – OpEd

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By Yves Niyiragira*

On the evening of 5 March 2013 as I rested in my room at Le Ndiambour Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, after a long flight from Nairobi, Kenya, the previous day, I learnt about the terrible news of the departure of President Hugo Chávez. With this news coming barely 18 months after the brutal assassination of Muammar al-Gaddafi, leader and guide of the Libyan revolution, by imperialist forces, it seemed as if all revolutionary leaders were leaving us. Indeed, on 3 August 2013, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also ending his term in office. The fight against imperialism and neo-colonialism seemed lost, with those three leaders no longer able to defend and present to various international fora the voices of the people of the Global South from the Americas to Africa and Asia.

As we commemorate the third anniversary of the passing on of President Chávez, it is a good opportunity to reflect on his leadership, but also on his vision of a world where ordinary people have the power to build a society whose purpose is not to serve the interests of the top one per cent of the planet’s population, but the basic needs of the masses. It is also an opportunity to remind our leaders that they have the responsibility to serve their fellow Africans and not the interests of multinational companies and other imperialist interests. Commemorating Chávez’s departure serves as well as a wake up call to young African people, as the welfare of the entire continent depends on their socio-economic visions and the decisions they take now and in the future while managing Africa’s resources.

LESSONS FROM CHÁVEZ’S SOCIO-ECONOMIC POLICIES

During his 14 years as leader of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Chávez was always wickedly criticised by Western powers because of his socio-economic policies that were designed to serve the masses. Indeed, in the eyes of Western powers, any policy that does not serve their interests is criticised from the start and attacked from all sides. With his vision of La Patria Humana or “Humane homeland”, Chávez launched a revolutionary programme he called “social missions”, basically transforming all government agencies and ministries into missions to serve the needs of the people. Describing the social missions, Chávez said, “The missions, which I consider of strategic importance, must be a way for the creation of a new social state. We come from a bourgeois state. That state served the interests of the bourgeoisie, and even until today, special interests that oppose the revolution infiltrate the state. The missions should become an instrument to boost the transformation of the bourgeois state into a social state of rights and justice. The missions should generate a new spirit of service, where plenty of voluntary and creative work is performed; where public servants would act differently, with a new social and socialist spirit”.

The new public service that President Hugo Chávez envisioned is one with the spirit of service and the wellbeing of the whole society at heart. That was an immense project because changing the mentality of the public service, which is responsible for the implementation of government policies, means changing the mentality of the whole society. Employees of the public service are members of the society and they needed to have that vision of a “social state of rights and justice”.

Another key element of Hugo Chávez’s social missions is the concept of La Patria Humana itself. Apart from being a vision for Venezuela, the concept of La Patria Humana is very important to look at. If one were to ask any citizen of an African country about the feeling of belonging to their country, how many would consider their country as “a humane homeland”? It can be argued that some would respond that they feel rejected and abandoned by the land in which they were born. That type of segregation against certain categories of people in the same country is what Hugo Chávez rejected with the concept of La Patria Humana, so that every Venezuelan feels proud of their country because they have a place and value in the society and they can have access to resources for their vital needs in that country. The vision of La Patria Humana embodies a social state where justice is applied equally and where all citizens can enjoy their individual and collective rights. It also represents a society where ordinary people can and are able to build a different world from the one we currently live in.

Social missions meant that public servants had to change their approach to public service. Rather than reinforcing a culture of corruption and misuse of resources that is not unusual in many government departments and ministries across the globe, Chávez envisioned changing those ministries and departments into service centres where the first priority would be the welfare of the society in general.

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the commemoration of the third anniversary of the departure of Hugo Chávez is an opportunity to reflect on how some of his legacies can be applied in African contexts. A policy such as that of social missions is urgently needed in many African countries. It is needed because in many African countries there is lack of a sense of total belonging among certain communities within any given African country. One reason could be the fact that colonisers geographically drew many African territories (empires and kingdoms) into countries that are not nation-states. As a result, the basic sense of belonging slowly disappeared after independence and gave way to regionalism, tribalism and ethnic divisions within one country. In some cases, one could see that public servants are happy to serve individuals from their region, community or ethnic group but lack the motivation for doing the same to others even if they all belong to the same country. Therefore, the vision of social missions to make sure that everyone gets the same rights and services from the public service and feels respected and valued in their own country is what is needed to also transform African public services.

Another key lesson that we learn from the policies of President Hugo Chávez is his approach to the management of natural resources of Venezuela. Natural resources whether it is water, land, timber, natural gas and oil among many others can be sources of endless national and international conflicts. Such resources belong to the people of where they are. Unfortunately, natural resources, especially those in African countries barely benefit African people. The African continent has witnessed numerous conflicts that resulted from disagreements on how to use resources of certain countries such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Somalia just to name a few. Most of those conflicts whether they were a result of internal actors or foreign ones, were fundamentally a consequence of disagreements on the equitable use of natural resources. Even some conflicts in Africa that appeared to be religious in nature or based on regional and ethnic tensions always had a hidden reason to do with equitable use and access to the available resources in that country or region. In many cases, a certain category of people wants to accumulate wealth and use all the resources alone to the detriment of the rest, often the majority. The fact that Hugo Chávez championed for a fair share of Venezuelan resources did not go well with those who were used to taking more than their share. Social services such as housing for marginalised people, access to health care for the poor and affordable schools for the vulnerable people were part of the main vision of La Patria Humana aimed at ensuring equitable share of the country’s resources and opportunities.

Unfortunately, in many African countries, such programmes do not exist and the most vulnerable members of the society are left to suffer with limited or without any state support at all. If African countries are to learn from the socio-economic policies of President Hugo Chávez, they will have to start from correcting social injustices that we currently see, ranging from deplorable housing in informal urban settlements that we see in many African cities where vital sanitation services are nonexistent. Other vital social services that are almost a given to the middle class and wealthy neighbourhoods of African cities are also absent in those informal urban settlements. Furthermore, there are the poor and marginalised segments of society living in rural areas and who are most of the time very far from centres of power and authority. Those ones are almost not a priority for the ruling classes and their wealthy supporters except when they seek for their votes. That state of affairs is totally unacceptable and if not changed, African countries will never be able to build societies where “ordinary people are able to form a new social order” that President Hugo Chávez was fighting for. In my view, it is an urgent challenge to every member of the society, so that everyone in any African society feels the calling for public service. It is not just a responsibility of the leaders, but also that of every citizen because members of society, who are you and I, are the basis to forming and leading the “social missions” that we seek to have in African societies.

The other important lesson from President Hugo Chávez that is worth mentioning here is his ability to “resist foreign influence and interfere”. Chávez’s strong position against imperialism and neo-colonialism brought him the fury of the top champions of those two infamous world policies to the point that he was characterised as an enemy of a number of Western countries. Perhaps the biggest opposition to imperial domination and pressures was Chávez’s idea in 2004 to establish the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA—Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América in Spanish) as a group whose objective was to promote social, political, and economic integration of Latin America and the Caribbean. ALBA, which means “dawn” in Spanish, was conceived by Chávez to be an alternative to the United Sates of America-led Free Trade Area of the Americas so that member states did not have to always rely on the US for their progress.

That strong position of the ALBA member states is what is needed for Africa. The creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 was an important beginning to resist colonialism, but the OAU was unable to help Africa fight against neo-colonial policies. Indeed, the transformation of the OAU into the African Union (AU) was an attempt to strengthen the continental organisation to be able to deal with post-independence challenges. The AU is yet to achieve that goal because one of the main steps that needs to be achieved is to be able to fund the work of the AU internally. It would be impossible for the AU to claim that it is an independent Pan-African organisation that is able to resist any foreign influence whereas it is still unable to generate enough resources to fund all its activities. It is not to say that there are no enough resources in Africa to fund the work of the AU, but the AU’s top leadership has not made it their priority to mobilise African people for that noble cause. And AU member states that are supposed to contribute funds for the work of the continental organisation, some of them do it is required, but others do not contribute their dues and even when they do so, their contributions are very little compared to their capacities and usually come in late. As such, AU members’ inability to adequately fund the activities and plans of the AU gives the impression that they do not believe in its vision of seeking “total political and economic emancipation of African people” wherever they are.

Of course, in the same way the United States of America did not want to see the success of ALBA, there are foreign powers that do not want to see the success of the AU. A strong AU means a strong African continent of more than a billion people, or more than one seventh of the world population that can, if united, be a very strong force in international affairs. In the same way it needed a courageous leader, Hugo Chávez, to establish ALBA, it will require bold leaders to transform the AU into an organisation that can ensure political, social and economic emancipation of the African people. Any other plans of the AU or other African regional economic communities contrary to that do not serve the interests of African people, but those of the ruling elite and their supporters.

IMPLEMENTING CHÁVEZ’S POLITICAL AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC POLICIES IN AFRICA

A professor of International Relations once told me that revolutionary leaders such as Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez and Thomas Sankara among others are very rare and that in some cases it might take centuries before another similar leader emerges—in reference to Hugo Chávez coming almost after two centuries after Simón Bolívar. Nevertheless, their legacies live on forever. As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, the commemoration of the third anniversary of the passing on of President Hugo Chávez serves as a good opportunity for Africans to reflect on how his political and socio-economic policies can be useful in African contexts in order to establish socialist states that serve the needs of the majority. This article proposes three main conditions that are necessaries for those policies, or some of them, to be successful in Africa. These having visionary leaders, strengthening African solidarity and working on true South-South cooperation. They are detailed in the paragraphs that follow.

Africa might not currently have leaders such as Thomas Sankara, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser, but Africans can learn from their exceptional leadership to be able to deal with current challenges that are face continent. In order for Africa to nurture and develop such kind of leaders, there is need to include, in the civic education curriculums, the history and achievements of those visionary leaders so that younger generations can learn from them and embrace them as role models. In addition, instead of only learning about the history of the West and their leaders who colonised Africa, Africans should learn about leaders such as Simón Bolívar, Ernesto che Guevara and Hugo Chávez who vehemently opposed imperial and neo-colonial agendas and fought for the emancipation of the people of the Global South. For that to happen, the education system in Africa has to change because the current curriculum is part of a broader system that looks down upon other types of knowledge and civilisations.

Visionary leaders that we aspire to have in Africa have to be nurtured from a younger age, which means that basic education needs to focus on the history of Africa and its exceptional leaders before colonisation and after the independence era. That way potential leaders can grow up appreciating the various leadership talents of Africans and strive to emulate them. It is also essential for eminent African leaders to establish mentorship institutions where they can mentor and develop leadership skills of emerging leaders. Another key element is to develop writing by eminent African leaders so that they can disseminate their thinking through writing. They might not be able to reach everyone in mentorship centres, but their writings can be accessed centuries after they have gone.

The second condition for implementing political, social and economic policies of Hugo Chávez — that focus on building socialist states that are able to transform state entities into social missions to serve the masses — in Africa is strengthening solidarity among African people. Solidarity among African people is not only achieved through political pronouncements, but also, and mostly, through promoting free movement of people and skills in Africa, cultural exchanges, intra-African trade and social cohesion among African people. Doing the above reinforces the fact that Africa is not some mass of land with geographical demarcations, but one people. This would in turn influence government policies so that they do not focus on closing their borders and arming themselves allegedly to protect themselves from their “dangerous” neighbours, but focus more on investing in social services to the benefit of their citizens and their neighbours.

Using the example of trade in Africa, the AU estimates that the share of Africa in global trade is only at 3 per cent, an insignificant proportion given the wealth of the continent both in terms of population and natural resources. Nevertheless, that statistic would not be worrying if the percentage of trade among African states were standing at a very high level. The reality is that Africa’s trade is highly externally oriented with relatively low level of intra-regional and intra-country trade. Intra-African trade stands at around 13 per cent compared to approximately 60 per cent, 40 per cent, 30 per cent intra-regional trade that has been achieved by Europe, North America and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations respectively. These statistics demonstrate that there is a certain level of fear and indifference among African countries. That state of affairs heavily influences national policies, which in many cases tend to be very protective and nationalistic in nature as opposed to being welcoming and Pan-Africanist.

Strangely, African countries constantly believe that their neighbours are their enemies; they do not give priority to developing social states; they instead focus on developing militaristic states to be able to supposedly defend themselves against the aggression from their “bad” neighbours. That kind of thinking needs to stop because it discourages regional and continental integration, which are key ingredients for developing social states whose first priority is the welfare of their people as opposed to focusing on building strong armies to defend their borders. Finally, encouraging cultural exchanges and movement of African people from one country and region to the other helps to lessen unfounded fears that neighbouring people and countries are enemies. That in return helps to change the priorities of governments from building militaristic states to developing social states as described.

The third condition is the promotion of strong alliances of the people of the South, commonly called the Global South. I propose to spend some time on the Global South because the promotion of the emancipation of the people of the Global South was the biggest agenda of President Hugo Chávez. The Global South generally refers to the less developed countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America; a region that is geographically wide, culturally differentiated and politically diverse. A number of Global South countries still suffer from the domination and exploitation of countries from the North (West), but there is increasing momentum within the Global South to resist that domination together with other global challenges such as the negative consequences of global climate change, control of diseases, review of the effectiveness of international financial aid, the fight against radicalisation and nuclear non-proliferation among other important global issues.

Hugo Chávez’s initiative to create ALBA was not the first attemp to bring together countries from the South, he was only contributing and revamping almost stalled initiatives. As a group of countries that share a common history of having been colonised by people of other races and having been since left at the periphery of world affairs, the Global South’s first initiative to engage in efforts leading to the emancipation of their people was probably profoundly evidenced at the Algiers, Algeria, during the Ministerial Meeting of the Group of 77 in October 1967 where all members, united by common aspirations, determined to pursue a joint agenda of political, social and economic emancipation of their people. In addition, the idea of a Global South as a political bloc became strong at the United Nations General Assembly summit of 1975 when a resolution on development and international cooperation was passed. Cooperation of the countries of the South (or South-South cooperation) was seen in form of political, economic, social and environmental and technical domains and able to take place at bilateral, sub-regional and inter-regional levels (Agbu, 2010).

Mawdsley (2011) analyses South-South cooperation in the following words: “The assertion of a shared experience of colonial exploitation, post-colonial inequality and present vulnerability to uneven neoliberal globalisation, and thus a shared identity as ‘third world’ nations; an explicit rejection of hierarchical relations between states, and a strong articulation of the principles of respect, sovereignty and non-interference as well as an insistence of win-win outcomes of South-South development cooperation and mutual opportunity among others, is what defines the cooperation among countries of the political bloc of the Global South”.

Gore (2013) also believes that South-South cooperation is rooted in “complete equality, mutual respect, mutual interest as well as respect for national sovereignty” in the framework of shared experiences and sympathy towards the enhancement of “collective self-reliance of developing countries”. Furthermore, de Carvalho (2014) explains that South-South cooperation can be conceptualised as those arrangements between countries of the Global South aimed at adjusting actions and behaviours, frequently performed by focusing on reducing international inequalities. That cooperation is also aimed at promoting joint actions that target similar domestic challenges and or joint work with the objective of exerting a higher impact on the international system.

The above brief description of Global South cooperation was the main motivation behind the establishment of regional blocs such as ALBA and continental organisations such as the AU. However, there is still a lot to be done for all those regional and continental blocs to work together for the common good of the people of the South. Since structures are already there, the onus is on the people of the South to push their governments to seriously work towards the emancipation of the people of the South and increased influence by the Global South in international fora in order to change existing systems that heavily favour countries from the West. If the existing organisations from the South such as the AU are unable to achieve their desired objectives, progressive leaders may think about creating new ones the same way President Hugo Chávez established ALBA because the Free Trade Area of the Americas was serving the interests of the few.

The idea of countries of the South coming together to fight against global imperialism is very appealing. But to see that vision actualised needs visionary leaders such as Hugo Chávez. Africa being one of the biggest blocs of the Global South should champion that vision because Africans would benefit more than others. Indeed, among countries of the Global South there are some that are also using the same imperial strategies to dominate other countries of the South, especially those in Africa. Since African countries are exploited by both the North and leading countries of the South, it is impossible for them to think about developing social states because their priority is on protecting their sovereignty. As such, Africans have more to gain by encouraging other countries of the South to live by their commitments of being “members” of the Global South so that they can both fight the bigger threat of global imperialism.

CONCLUSION

This article joins other voices that are commemorating the third anniversary of the departure of President Hugo Chávez. In the 14 years that he was in power, he championed various social causes aimed at helping the most vulnerable people of Venezuela. Some of the most important of those policies are social missions that were meant to transform the entire public service. Unfortunately, changing the whole public service is not an easy task and in the middle of that transformation there were abuses of power and resources by some officials. Considering the positive side of Hugo Chávez’s social policies, this article uses the commemoration of the third anniversary of his departure to propose how those policies can be useful for Africa and the conditions that need to be met for that to happen. The conditions are the development of visionary leaders, the promotion of African solidarity and working towards effective cooperation among countries of the Global South. Finally, the article proposes to use the opportunity of remembering Hugo Chávez as a way of also celebrating exceptional African leaders and making sure that their leadership skills are passed on to younger African generations.

The article recognises that there might be different views and opinions about the legacy of President Hugo Chávez, but it is hoped that it has contributed one or two ideas to the broader debates of building a world that cares for the most vulnerable people in society. The author strongly believes that the vision of establishing social states is what Africa needs to be able to respond to the vital needs of its more than one billion people.

* Yves Niyiragira is the Executive Director of Fahamu, publishers of Pambazuka News.

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