El Chavismo sin Chavez.

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) 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  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 to 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 moderate caudillo (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  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?

13 thoughts on “El Chavismo sin Chavez.

  1. I’m not trying to claim an exact parallel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the eventual legacy of “Bolivarism” is similar to that of “Peronism” in Argentina – that “Bolivarists” claiming the legacy of Chavez will continue to be electorally successful (especially in 30 days time), but the movement will become increasingly fragmented, self-perpetuating and possibly even ideologically split.

    Also, Pablo, your post seems a bit contradictory. You say that Chavez ran down infrastructure, but you also say that he built hospitals and schools. Aren’t hospitals, in particular, an important bit of infrastructure?

  2. Hugh:

    Your analogy with Peronism is interesting, perhaps accurate but possibly overdrawn given that the latter has survived as a (admittedly divided) movement for thirty five years after his death. It remains a very open question that Chavismo will last that long as a competitive political force, but I have no doubts there will be political factions that will always claim his mantle. It should be able to win the immediate election unless armed struggle breaks out within it.

    The deterioration in infrastructure is seen in the road network, power grid, public transportation. government services and state firms. Priority was given to poverty alleviation, so other areas suffered. High post 9/11 oil prices were the main reason the regime could fund the projects that it did. Had prices stayed at the US$23/barrel mark for sweet Arabian crude (and remember that Venezuelan crude is lower quality shale-extracted), then the scale of social spending would have been far less, or at least less affordable.

  3. I’m presuming the sympathy vote for whomever ends up carrying the Bolivaran flag (presumably Maduro) will be massive, so Chavez’s immediate heirs might have a bit of a long honeymoon, but I don’t see the movement retaining any coherency without him, not even for a couple of years.

    Do you think armed struggle is likely?

  4. Re: armed struggle.

    That depends on the bitterness of internal disputes (should they materialize), the actions of the opposition, and the potential meddling of foreign interests. The behavior of Venezuelan and Cuban exiles in the US, who already engage in fund-raising, paramilitary training and public propagandizing with the objective of overthrowing both the Castro as well as the Chavez regimes, will be interesting to follow. So will the response of the Cubans and Iranians, who have close relations with the Boliviarian regime and who have much to lose if the Chavistas are removed from power. Russia and China will live with whatever status quo emerges so long as their commercial interests (to include military sales) are not affected.

    The US will work quietly behind the scenes to undermine hard-line Chavistas in favor of more moderate factions, as well as with the opposition, but will not overtly intervene unless the exiles (many of whom are now US citizens) try to push the issue in Venezuela and get themselves in a bind as a result. If that happens the US right wing will demand armed intervention in defense of the “freedom fighters,” at which point the US government will have little choice but to try and protect its (misguided) citizens however necessary given the domestic political realities of the moment.

    Whatever the case, I would imagine that the USG and its responsible agencies (such as OSD-ISA-IA, Joint Staff and the Southern Command) are drawing up contingency plans to cover any armed eventuality, to include wide-spread public disorder.

  5. I don’t doubt you’re right about contingency plans, but I find it very hard to imagine US boots on the ground, except in an extremely limited sense. I also don’t doubt you’re right about the exiles seeing this as an opportunity, but I imagine they will probably wait until after the election. A post-Chavez Chavista government is going to look very shakey, and will be much more vulnerable to both constitutional and extra-legal pressure.

    I guess time will tell.

  6. Bearing in mind he effectively banned any organisation getting foreign funding or help that was involved in “accountability of public officials or agencies”, it is difficult to independently verify what was achieved and what wasn’t, although he was popular – the hyperinflation and devaluation of the currency has been an effective way to steal from the poor and middle classes.

    Perhaps his most damaging legacy has been to abolish judicial independence and the rule of law, effectively acting by decree against his opponents. That, and the peculiar five-fold rise in the murder rate under his rule – which in itself, ought to raise some flags about what the true conditions of many actually are.

  7. LS:

    The use of executive decrees and state corporatist mechanisms that curtail the activities of interest groups (including funding) is all-too-common in Latin America and the product of overly strong presidential systems in which executive power is relatively unchecked. Chavez was not alone in his (ab)use of these instruments of state control, as elected presidents throughout the region, including neighboring Colombia, make ample use of them.

    The lack of judicial independence is also a fairly common feature of regional jurisprudence, but Chavez’s stacking of the courts was egregious. His claim that the judicial corps was full of members of the elite when he came to power has merit, but his way of removing and replacing them does not.

    The rise in inflation can be attributed to run-of-the mill poor government spending decisions. The increased murder rate is more difficult to explain, but appears to be a product of cheap drugs and alcohol, availability of guns (coming over the border from Colombia), the rise of criminal gangs and inner-city social decay in part due to the government’s emphasis on rural rather than urban poverty alleviation.

    However, the problem of rising violent crime is not exclusive to Venezuela or any political regime–all of Central America, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean have experienced rising murder rates in the last decade, so the problem is not reducible to the ideology of those in charge.

  8. Pablo, indeed not, but for 14 years worth of rule, the pattern has been one of those indicators getting much worse.

    I wouldn’t ever claim he was alone in being bad, but I do find the paeans of praise for him that conveniently sweep to one side a pattern of ever increasing authoritarianism, corruption and economic mismanagement as a mere footnote, to be short changing Venezuelans.

    On the flipside I don’t think for one moment that some of the economic policies Pinochet introduced (which I’d agree with and argue Chile has subsequently benefited from), justified at all his regime and the practices it adopted against opponents. The ends do not justify the means, and they especially do not justify the means to hold politicians and their officials to account.

    It is quite simply malignant for a regime to proceed down a path that includes arresting judges that don’t pass the correct verdict on people deemed by the regime as being opponents. Meanwhile, the waste and the transfers to foreign regimes (and even the bizarre gift of cheap diesel to London) did absolutely nothing for the poor of Venezuela, but bought the billionaire Chavez lots of friends.

    He could have just used the oil money for welfare, health and education for the poor, without generating hyperinflation and shortages, without oppressing opponents, without corrupting the state and without Mugabe style farm confiscations that destroyed local food production. Had he done that, then he could have credibly been a different model of leader.

  9. LS:

    I am glad that we can agree that the move towards authoritarianism is never justified, be it of the right or the left. I also agree that the stark good/bad representations of Chavez does a disservice to the complexities of his case. It has been disappointing to me to see some of my lefty friends cast a blind eye to his excesses and misbehavior. Hatred of the US can do that to people.

    The two questions that come to mind are 1) would Chavez have gone authoritarian if the local elites had not been so disloyal (to the point of coup plotting) and the US had not reacted so negatively to his election (to include supporting the 2002 coup)? We will never know but the behaviour of the local elites and the US sure facilitated that move. It also facilitated his turn to rogue states for support, so in a sense the regime’s evolution became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    2) Is the Chavez experiment another example of the fossil fuel curse, where countries that are heavily dependent on oil or gas exports for hard currency earnings tend to be more often than not authoritarian or become authoritarian once those reserves become exploitable? That is a theme in comparative politics and the record is quite strong in that regard: as things stand, a majority of oil-exporting countries are run by despots of one sort or the other.

    In Venezuela’s case, Chavez’s predecessors ran an elite or oligarchical electoral-based “pacted” regime where two bourgeois parties rotated control of government and siphoned oil profits into their support base. Chavez just changed the nature of those in power and those who received the benefits of oil profits, although I agree that he squandered most of them and rode a wave of rising oil prices to fund his projects.

    Which leaves the final question: if Chavez did not have oil profits to play with, would his Boliviarian experiment have gotten off the ground, much less won four free and fair elections?

  10. Pablo, I think the question of whether Bolivarism can work without oil is best answered by watching what happens in Ecuador and Bolivia.

  11. Hugh:

    Ecuador is an oil dependent state. Bolivia is slightly different in that it depends on mineral and natural gas exports (and coca!). In both cases, be it under Rafael Correa (just re-elected) or Evo Morales, the regime has slowly “hardened” by increasing executive power at the expense of other institutions. Not yet quite to the point of Chavez, but the trend is discernible.

  12. How silly, I didn’t know about Ecuador’s oil deposits.

    I did think of the parallel to Bolivian natural gas, but while natural gas prices are rising, they haven’t reached the point where we can compare them to oil or usefully talk about ‘pneumo-crats’. Not yet, anyway.

  13. Hugh:

    What is most interesting to me about the fossil fuel dependency/authoritarianism argument is that it is part of a broader rejection of Ricardian economics. The counter to his comparative advantage specialization thesis is that such a monopolistic development strategy based on exploitation of a single primary good export or limited range of commodity resources concentrates economic power in a small elite who directly control political power (either by themselves or via proxies).

    In state capitalist and socialist systems that elite can be state managers, and those state managers may have come to political power by overthrowing or expropriating the private elites who previously controlled the primary resource.

    The counter argument continues that diversifying the economy away from comparative advantage specialization allows for the creation of multiple sources of economic power that cannot be controlled under a single political umbrella tied to any one economic interest (there are several reasons for this but I shall not detail them now). That in turn pushes the creation of a competitive political party system in which these various contending interests, as well as those representing the working classes, can vie for political control.

    The counter-argument essentially claims that Ricardian strategies in countries dependent on a limited range of primary good exports are conducive to authoritarianism and inimical to democracy.

    Needless to say, that has been a much debated claim.

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