Some years ago, traveling on the plane of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a French friend from Le Monde diplomatique, we were asked what we thought was happening in Europe. Was there any chance of a move to the left? We replied in the depressed and pessimistic tones typical of the early years of the 21st century. Neither in Britain nor France, nor anywhere in the eurozone, did we see much chance of a political breakthrough.
Then maybe, said Chavez with a twinkle, we could come to your assistance, and he recalled the time in 1830 when revolutionary crowds in the streets of Paris had come out waving the cap of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator from Venezuela who was to die at the end of that year. Fighting for liberty, Latin American style, was held up as the path for Europe to follow.
At the time, I was encouraged, but not persuaded by Chavez’s optimism. Yet now I think he was right; it was good to be reminded that Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s SYRIZA party, had visited Caracas in 2007 and inquired about the future possibility of receiving cheap Venezuelan oil, much as Cuba and other Caribbean and Central American countries do.
More important than the prospect of cheap oil is the power of example. Chavez has been engaged since the turn of the century, even before, on a project that rejects the neoliberal economics that afflicts Europe and much of the West. He has opposed the recipes of the World Bank and the IMF and has fought hard against the policies of privatization that harmed the social and economic fabric of Latin America and with which the EU is now threatening to destroy the Greek economy.
The words of Chavez have had an effect beyond Venezuela. They have encouraged Argentina to default on its debt; to reorganize its economy thereafter and to renationalize its oil industry. Chavez has helped Bolivian President Evo Morales run that country’s oil and gas industry for the benefit of the nation rather than its foreign shareholders, and more recently to halt the robbery by Spain of the profits of its electricity company. Above all, he has shown Latin American countries that there is an alternative to the single neoliberal message that has been endlessly broadcast for decades, by governments and the media in hock to an outdated ideology.
Now is the time for that alternative message to be heard further afield, to be listened to by voters in Europe. Chavez and his co-religionaries in the new “Bolivarian revolution” have called for “21st-century socialism,” not a return to Soviet-style economics or the continuation of the mundane social democratic adaptation of capitalism, but, as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has described it, the re-establishment of national planning by the state “for the development of the majority of the people.”