I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.
The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.
After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.
He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.
All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.
Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.
In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.
He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).
He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states)Â so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had Â significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.
He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response toÂ his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.
On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderateÂ caudilloÂ (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.
The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).
To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days Â after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.
Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.
For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?