Cesar Chavez and Hugo Chávez: more alike than they are different

Cesar Chavez and Hugo Chávez may have different reputations, but they both offer lessons for progress in America.

March 31 is the birthday of the Chavez Americans love to love. Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers (UFW) to successfully take on California agribusiness in the 1960s, and his soft-spoken manner and fierce commitment to social justice inspired a generation of activists.

Supporters remember the grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960s and ’70s as a time when ordinary people joining together began to change the world. Mr. Chavez’s birthday is celebrated in eight states, and during the 2008 campaign President Obama said he’d make it a national holiday, in tribute to the charismatic Latino icon.

Hugo Chávez is the Chávez Americans love to hate. Blustery president, challenger of US influence in Latin America, and subverter of democratic norms, Mr. Chávez seeks counsel from Fidel Castro and mocks US presidents in public. He polarizes Venezuela by alternately rallying the poor and shutting down radio stations, and he urges leftist presidents across the Americas to take up his anti-US and anti-capitalist stance.

The truth is, however, that the two Chavezes are more alike than they are different. Americans’ inability to see that says more about our own political blindness than about these two charismatic fighters for social justice. And if we reexamine these figures, we may find a way out of our own political impasse.

Few Americans know that the gains won by the UFW in the ’70s have since unraveled. There are few unions for California’s farmworkers. Many of these workers face conditions similar to those of the 1950s, living in tents in the canyons of San Diego and receiving minimum wage for backbreaking labor that is also irregular and unsafe.

And as a recent book by journalist Miriam Pawel makes clear, the cause of the UFW’s demise was Cesar Chavez himself. The charisma and brilliance that enabled Chavez to rally supporters across the US, from students to ministers to suburban housewives, also led him to ignore the on-the-ground needs of running a union and throw out anyone who opposed his top-down authority.

Few Americans know that Hugo Chávez has brought dignity, food, and a say in politics to many of the poor Venezuelans who were excluded from the wealth and upward mobility of the oil-boom years. Organized in neighborhood councils, Venezuela’s poor feel like citizens for the first time in their country’s now 50 years of democracy. They can debate public issues, contribute to the development of their neighborhoods, and get access to healthcare.

Why don’t Americans know that Cesar Chavez stomped on democracy in the UFW, purging anyone who spoke up to disagree with him and slandering loyal supporters as spies and seducers? And why don’t Americans know that Hugo Chávez offers the dignity of recognition and citizenship, along with material resources for communities and families, to people who have been suffering brutal poverty since the end of the oil boom in the early 1980s?

We don’t know these things because we don’t like to see politics in complicated packages. We think of successful movements for social justice as entirely good, and we imagine democracy as a system of elections, laws, and courts that produces sound legislation out of the needs and preferences of citizens, mediated through elected representatives. When democracy doesn’t work this way, we decry partisanship and special interests. But we understand social movements and democracy as separate phenomena, both of them good, but very different one from the other.

Instead, we should see both social movements and democracy as deeply and inevitably flawed, each in need of the other to survive and produce workable policies and more just societies.

For Cesar Chavez to have succeeded in his dream of dignity and well-being for farmworkers, he would have needed to combine his visionary commitment to building a movement with attention to the day-to-day details of making a labor union work for its members. He would have had to set up procedures for debate and voting – a democracy inside the UFW movement. Farmworkers needed a progressive movement and democracy to be able to take on the interests of the powerful and sustain the gains for which they fought so hard.

The same is true for Hugo Chávez. To make good on his promises of dignity and well-being for poor Venezuelans, he needs to combine his movement with real commitment to democratic institutions and procedures before it’s too late. That means freeing the radio stations and newspapers to say what they want, bringing fairness and robust competition back to courts and elections, and keeping social movements mobilized and in the streets.

The movements behind Chávez, in turn, need to press for real change while insisting on the means to hold leaders accountable, not signing over their autonomy to one big, Chávez-led project. Venezuelans need not only a movement in the streets but the working, day-to-day practices of democracy to forge more humane alternatives to the brutal market economy that has devastated their country.

For Mr. Obama, the equation goes in the other direction. To bring his campaign promises about progressive change to fruition, Obama needs to combine his commitments to democratic procedures, to debate and bipartisanship, with real movements in the streets, not just inspiring speeches backed by politicking in Washington. In a world of entrenched interests, where bankers and health insurance companies wield overwhelming influence, change happens when the streets and the institutions work in tandem, each pressing and shaping the other. That’s what happened in the civil rights movement, and that’s what enabled the UFW to achieve unprecedented legal victories in California.

Imagine today if unemployed, uninsured, homeless, and near-homeless Americans, poor and middle class alike, along with everyone who supported them, marched on Washington, boycotting and challenging the banks and health insurance companies in the process. That would press Obama and Congress to follow through with the progressive policymaking this country so desperately needs, from implementing the new healthcare bill to taking bold new steps on financial regulation, education, immigration, and infrastructure.

We in the US need to take a page from the playbook of Cesar Chavez, while maintaining our adherence to the norms of democracy and dissent. Today we need democracy and a progressive movement in the streets to challenge powerful economic interests and create a workable and just democratic society.

Jeffrey W. Rubin is associate professor of history at Boston University, where he directs the Enduring Reform Project, a research initiative focusing on business responses to progressive reform. He received a MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant for his research on social movements and democracy in Latin America.

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