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Chavez, internationalism and socialism : an interview with Camille CHALMERS

Since the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on March 5, thousands of memorials have transpired across the Americas, from national ceremonies to village wakes. They have been organized by those inspired by the new models of economic, political, and internationalist power propelled by the Venezuelan president. Camille Chalmers, Latin American social movement leader, gave the keynote speech at a memorial at the State University of Haiti on March 14. Beverly Bell caught up with him later in Port-au-Prince, tape recorder in hand, and recorded his thoughts.

Chávez believed heavily in creating transformative Southern power and a new unity in the South. One of Chávez’s greatest achievements was realizing an active, dynamic internationalism that can create new realities of progress.

He carried the heritage of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Simon Bolívar, who believed strongly in integration. Chávez thought everyone was an American and that there was no reason to be split into so many different, little countries. He wanted to create a large federation of people, a socialist federation of all peoples of Latin America. Everything he did worked toward that end. And during 14 years of power, there has been more progress on the question of Latin American integration than during the preceding 70 years.

It’s important to note that Chávez accomplished all this while the main objective of the U.S. State Department in Latin America was to isolate him and Venezuela. Well, we can see that that didn’t work at all. At his funeral there were 33 heads of state and more than 50 foreign delegations.

Chávez worked toward integration with the founding of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) in 2004, with the cooperation of Cuba. ALBA was an extraordinary innovation because it redefined integration not only as solidarity among the people, but also as a Latin American political question. Today ALBA unites eight nations [and two guest nations], and all the countries in ALBA have shown spectacular progress. Examples include the elimination of illiteracy in Venezuela and Bolivia, the incredible improvements in health indicators, and significant work to improve the school systems.

The birth of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) marked the first Latin American agreement that did not include the United States or Canada. It is an alternative to the OAS [Organization of American States], which is dominated by the U.S. UNASUR has a huge importance because it permits the continent to manage its own crises. For example, when the military leaders of FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] were assassinated in Ecuador, that could have degenerated into war between Ecuador and Colombia and halted all political progress in Latin America. UNASUR’s existence allowed for that crisis to be managed without a war.

After that, Chávez went on to develop integration further with CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] in 2011. Today, it is starting to deliver important results. For example, at a recent conference held in Santiago, Chile between European and Latin American heads of state, the E.U. said, “For the first time, Latin America speaks with one voice.”

And there were two other important ideas that Chávez explored but that have not been implemented: the Bank of the South and a unified South American currency, the SUCRE. These propositions could contribute a lot to the reclamation of regional and continental sovereignty.

He outraged the imperialists in every international forum. An important moment was in 2001 at the Third Annual Summit of the Americas in Quebec, during the negotiations for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas [FTAA]. There was a huge crowd in the streets, close to 50,000 people. And in the negotiations, all the presidents signed an accord in support of the FTAA, which amounted to a total domination of the Americas’ regional economy. Chávez alone stood up and said that he would not sign it because it was against the interests of the people of the Americas and against the Bolivarian constitution. I recall when he took the stage after President Bush [at the U.N. in 2006] and said that the devil himself must have just passed because the podium still smelled like sulfur.

Chávez also believed strongly in solidarity among peoples. He believed that in foreign relations, it wasn’t only about what was in it for you, but it was also about exchanging what you have in a way that respects others. We see programs like Petrocaribe, which has created a lot of change over the last 10 years in the 15 Caribbean countries that benefit from that cooperation.

And he had a lot of interest in Haiti. He spoke a lot about the Haitian Revolution. It was a source of inspiration for him. Chávez proclaimed time and again that the Haitian revolution was so important that he could not envision an effective integration of Latin American people without Haiti. He considered Haiti as an important element in the search for non-capitalist alternatives. He always maintained that the way Haiti was treated and misunderstood internationally was a grave injustice. Venezuela and Cuba were the only governments that ever denounced MINUSTAH [the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, occupying the country since 2004]. Chávez always held that position, despite other member countries of ALBA – such as Bolivia and Ecuador – providing troops.

We also have to consider how hard he worked to prioritize trade with Africa and Asia. Venezuelan trade with Africa increased threefold under Chávez. And this wasn’t unique to Venezuela; Brazil also entered into that dynamic.

Another important point is the question of socialism. When Chávez came to power, progressive forces in the world were being isolated, and everyone was saying that socialism was a thing of the past, antiquated, failed along with the Soviet Union, something we didn’t need to talk about any more. Chávez put socialism back on the table. Today it is one of the factors that inspires the reflections and actions of groups in Latin America in particular, and around the world in general. Chávez had the intelligence to present socialism as a project of the future. I think he deserves a lot of credit from all progressive forces for bringing socialism back into the dialogue of the masses.

Beginning in 2004, Chávez affirmed the socialist orientation of the battle he had been fighting all his life. One of his principal pillars: he thought we could advance toward a Fifth International to dynamize the struggles of revolutionaries. Chávez made an exceptional contribution in that sense, recognized by activists from around the world.

Chávez had outstanding charisma, vision, sincerity, strength, determination, and courage. He was an exceptional person who made an exceptional contribution. At the same time, we need to recognize that he came at a very specific time in Latin America, a moment of accumulation of strength. We are in a revolutionary period in Latin America, and it’s very important that we see Chávez as the political expression of these new battles.

Furthermore, if Chávez hadn’t had the support of many social movements that were changing the questions of politics, the vision of politics, the ways of politics, there wouldn’t have been a “Chávez,” just as there wouldn’t have been a landless workers’ movement; CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador); the Zapatistas of Mexico; women’s movements in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, etc.

Chávez is truly immortal because he represents a deep current, a deep wave. I believe that Chávez’s contribution will continue to nourish the reflections, aspirations, and dreams of all people who love social justice, who love equality, and who love liberty.

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Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.