Julia Buxton is Head of International Relations and Security Studies (IRSS), Peace Studies, at the University of Bradford. She researches democratisation and peace, gender and violence and the effects of the drugs trade. She is a regular contributor to LAB on Venezuela.
Commentators have been preparing obituaries for Hugo Chávez ever since the announcement of his cancer diagnosis in July 2011. There were peaks and troughs of activity, Christmas 2012 being a time of frenzied speculation after no word or tweet emanated from the ebullient president after he departed for Havana and a fourth round of treatment.
Official pronouncements over the passing weeks provided optimism that Chávez would be able to assume the fourth term that he had won in the October 2012 presidential election. Opinion polls showed that a majority of Venezuelans were confident Chávez would be back in Miraflores Palace and were supportive of the delay of his January 10th inauguration. There was consequently a stunned popular reaction to the tearfully delivered message from Vice President Nicolas Maduro that Chávez had died on March 5th.
Within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), hope had been tempered with realism. Plans for the once unimaginable scenario of Chavismo without Chávez placed an ailing but dedicated Chávez at the forefront of the campaign to retain the presidency for the PSUV, while building the profile of his successor Nicolas Maduro within the Chavista movement. There were hopes that the transition process could be drawn out, that Chávez could achieve sufficient fitness to begin a new six year term while Maduro won the hearts and minds of the diverse Chavista factions. But it was not to be and the PSUV must now take forward the Bolivarian revolution without its dynamic leader and intellectual heart .
An Historical Perspective
Although Chávez’s legacy will be as contested as his presidency, even his most dedicated enemies will find it hard to deny the significance of his achievements. His election in 1998 was in itself a revolution in Venezuelan politics, bringing to power actors and interests excluded from the power sharing agreement that framed democratisation in 1958. The mulatto Chávez was derided during the 1998 election campaign for his colloquialisms and lampooned as a monkey in the local right wing press. But despite the mockery, racism and frantic last minute efforts to block his victory, he triumphed on the back of mass popular demand for political change.
Critics of Chávez maintain that he perverted democracy in the country and throttled prospects for economic growth. The reality is that there was no pre-Chávez golden era. The country Chávez inherited was wracked by gross disparities in wealth, opportunity and access to education and healthcare. Per capita GDP had fallen 14% over the preceding decade, and the price per barrel of the country’s main export, oil, had slumped to $6. The national oil company PDVSA had been part privatised in a fire sale that saw its entire IT arm sold to the US defence contractor SIC for just $100.
While $6 per barrel was a gift to US consumers of Venezuelan petroleum it had devastating consequences for Venezuela’s development—consequences the government was incapable of reversing because it barely controlled PDVSA or the investments of its Miami-oriented business elite. In this ‘oil rich’ state, nearly half of Venezuelans lived in impoverished households and 70% of the country’s prime agricultural land was in the hands of just 2% of the population. There was no food sovereignty and malnutrition was a problem for those unable to afford the basic agricultural and dairy products which were imported at inflated prices.
Despite the existence of formal democracy, the voices and demands of the majority were marginalised by a narrow circle of political elites, which protected the minority interests of allies in the union movement, business sector, private media and Roman Catholic church. These groups formed a powerful anti-Chávez lobby after 1998, resorting to destabilising, unconstitutional and ultimately counterproductive interventions designed to halt the Bolivarian revolution and remove a democratically elected president who threatened their privileges.
The Evolution of Chávez
Chávez did not anticipate the ferocity of resistance to his initially modest plans for a reformist social democracy. The 2002 coup attempt that temporarily removed him from power, followed in 2003 by crippling private sector lock-outs forced Chávez to shift gear and change strategy. Social justice became the focus after 2004 with the government initiating a range of social policy initiatives, from community clinics and school construction campaigns to popular supermarkets and credit schemes. These were developed and delivered by communities themselves through a new ‘geometry of power’ based on over 30,000 community councils and co-operatives. Each step in rebuilding the political system was put to electoral test, with the government convening 15 elections and referenda over Chávez’s fourteen years in power.
As the social base of the Chavista movement expanded, Chávez’s style evolved. Now a more confident politician than the inexperienced former lieutenant-general who had assumed office in 1999, Chávez honed his direct and amiable style, dancing, singing and hugging his supporters. He encouraged state funding of projects that resurrected and re-energised Venezuela’s diverse cultural heritage, and encouraged pride in a Latin American identity as a means of diluting the long standing yanqui influence.
It was the increase in the international oil price that enabled the Venezuelan government to finance not only its social programmes but also ambitious projects of regional integration through co-operation. Initiatives such as Petrocaribe, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas and the Banco del Sur sought to redefine diplomatic and commercial ties, basing them on solidarity and economic complementarities rather than US-led free trade and competition.
The new institutional and political relations that were galvanised by Chávez took root in a hemisphere exhausted by neoliberalism and hostile to the influence of the IMF and World Bank. The Pink Tide of the 2000s surrounded Chávez with likeminded peers, each conditioned by their own domestic circumstances but united in a desire to forge new institutions that reflected changing hemispheric priorities.
The US remained immune to the evolving narratives and complexities of its southerly neighbours. Preoccupied with the War on Terror, the Bush and subsequently the Obama administrations wrote Chávez off as a buffoon and demagogue. There was no engagement with the salience of his arguments or the appeal of his vision.
US endorsement of the 2002 coup and subsequent funding of Chávez’s opponents served only to discredit the domestic opposition movement, while further encouraging Chávez in his quest to integrate Latin America and build a multipolar world order to weaken the influence of the US.
In the course of diversifying Venezuela’s long standing ties with the US, Chávez’s charisma was put to diplomatic test in capitals around the world. His charm and humanity transcended language and religion, rendering him a hero and household name across Africa, Asia and the Arab world. In particular he looked to Iran, Russia, Cuba and China as new commercial and diplomatic partners. This brought over $20 billion in new investment into the country and valuable exchanges of medical, engineering and academic personnel and technologies. Venezuela was not alone in courting these new influences, Brazil for example inducing four times more Iranian investment than Venezuela. Nonetheless it was Chávez who was condemned by the US for his courting of ‘authoritarian’ regimes, Caracas and not Rio that was seen to be infiltrated by Hizbollah and all manner of dangers that rendered the country a national security threat for the Republican party.
Chávez countered neoconservative hysteria with his own inflammatory rhetoric, but was always careful to differentiate between being anti-Bush and anti-American. He supported initiatives to supply poor American households with discounted heating fuel and he surrounded himself with American progressives.
Achieving and funding transformation required that the Bolivarian revolution retake control of PDVSA and re-engage with OPEC and non-OPEC countries to elevate oil prices. Here the relationship with other oil hawks such as Russia and Iran was essential to reducing supply and boosting prices. The battle to reassert state control over PDVSA was fraught and protracted but by the time of the 2006 presidential election campaign, Chávez was able to declare the nationalised oil sector to be the motor of the revolution and driver of Twenty-First Century Socialism.
During his fourteen years in power, Chávez oversaw a halving of poverty levels and a re-legitimisation of participation and public engagement. He transformed the political debate and options not only for Venezuela, but the Americas more broadly. The test of his legacy will be the sustainability of the projects that he catalysed. The extent to which initiatives such as Petrocaribe and the social Missions are shown to have institutional root rather than being personality-driven populist excess will be tested in the months and years ahead.
Chávez’s designated successor, vice president Nicolás Maduro will no doubt emerge victorious from new presidential elections that have to be convened within the next month. Consolidation of Chávez’s revolution will require continuity, as the new president will not want to alienate any of Chavismo’s multiple factions. But keeping the diverse Chavista movement unified will not be the only challenge facing Maduro. His most immediate and pressing problems will be those issues that Chávez neglected, most particularly crime, insecurity and corruption.