With Chavez gone, what of ‘Chavismo’?
‚ÄúThe End of the Ch√°vez Era‚ÄĚ That was the headline on Colombia‚Äôs major newspaper, El Tiempo, the day after Hugo Ch√°vez‚Äôs death.
True, Ch√°vez‚Äôs controversial and colorful 14-year rule has ended, and Venezuela has lost a president who evoked uncommonly intense passions among followers and detractors.¬†¬† Venezuelans will not easily forget a leader who, for better or worse, was the consummate showman and left an indelible mark on a highly polarized society.
Yet Chavez also followed in a long line of caudillos, or strongmen, who have been a notable feature in Latin America‚Äôs political history. Indeed, Venezuela has had its fair share. As the acute observer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia‚Äôs Nobel Prize-winning writer, noted soon after Ch√°vez‚Äôs 1998 election, the new president‚Äôs seductive rhetoric recalled so many of the region‚Äôs other leading political figures — but he could well end up as yet another Latin American despot.
The difference, of course, was that Ch√°vez, unlike his predecessors ‚Äď indeed, unlike any other Latin American leader ‚Äď had a big checkbook, thanks to the immense windfall he derived from spectacular oil price increases since he took office (to more than $100 a barrel from less than $10).
For Ch√°vez, Venezuela was too small. Given his outsized ambitions, he needed a larger stage ‚Äď not just the continent, but the world ‚Äď to form coalitions of like-minded nations and consolidate and project his power.
Ch√°vez not only pursued this course with rare audacity in the region ‚Äď some 18 nations formed part of his Petro Caribe scheme that benefited from oil at cut-rate prices ‚Äď but also globally. As early as 2000, in defiance of United Nations sanctions, Ch√°vez visited and lent support to Iraq‚Äôs Saddam Hussein. He also cozied up to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and other assorted Washington adversaries. With his largesse, Ch√°vez sought to build a constituency even in the United States. He provided discounted home heating oil through CITGO, the subsidiary of the state-owned company PDVSA, to the poor in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and elsewhere.
Ch√°vez‚Äôs megalomania meant that he controlled all power in Venezuela. He was the only person who could make key decisions. The result was that institutions such as the judiciary were undermined and hollowed out. As Ch√°vez supporters rightly pointed out, though, these institutions were not that strong or autonomous to begin with. Even the subject of succession was not contemplated until Ch√°vez‚Äôs illness became so severe three months ago.
Still, Chavismo, the movement Ch√°vez created and led, will probably survive for some time ‚Äď if in a diminished form, without its singular dominant and charismatic figure.
The most likely scenario is that Nicolas Maduro, Ch√°vez‚Äôs designated successor and current vice president, will win the presidential election, in the context of enormous sympathy for Ch√°vez. He can be expected to refer frequently to the ‚Äúgreat leader‚ÄĚ and invoke Ch√°vez to rally support, as has been done in Argentina with Juan Per√≥n and, now, by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with her late husband N√©stor, the former president.
Maduro will also be helped by a markedly demoralized and fractured opposition, which suffered two consecutive electoral defeats last year. There is no reason why the sensibilities and positions cultivated during the Ch√°vez era ‚Äď and which drew on frustrations with long-term social inequalities and resentments against the United States ‚Äď cannot be sustained.
At a wider regional level, however, the ‚ÄúCh√°vez era‚ÄĚ had been in decline long before the Venezuelan president‚Äôs death. The zenith of Ch√°vez‚Äôs appeal was five or six years ago, when he was politically popular. He also benefited from having the perfect foil for his antics in the widely disliked U.S. President George W. Bush.
There is no clearer measure of how Ch√°vez‚Äôs stock dwindled after 2006 than the striking change of heart of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. In 2006, Humala ran for the presidency as an unabashed Ch√°vez admirer, campaigning on a radical program in line with the tenets of his Bolivarian revolution. Humala lost that election. But he came back to win the presidency in 2011, distancing himself from Ch√°vez and embracing a moderate, pragmatic stance. Humala‚Äôs government now adheres closely to what Ch√°vez derided as ‚Äúneo-liberal‚ÄĚ policies. It can scarcely be described as leftist.
It is no accident that Humala‚Äôs political advisers during the 2011 campaign had previously worked for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio ‚ÄúLula‚ÄĚ da Silva, a hero to much of the Latin American left. During Lula‚Äôs two administrations (2002-2010), Brazil made great advances, emerging as a global power. Lula managed to combine economic growth with social equity, including dramatic reductions in poverty levels ‚Äď all within a democratic framework and rule of law.
For most of Latin America, those elements became the formula for success, and might be described as the ‚ÄúBrasilia consensus.‚ÄĚ The 1990s ‚ÄúWashington consensus,‚ÄĚ with its potent free-market policies, left out the crucial social equity piece.
Whatever one might think about Ch√°vez and his legacy, though he ¬†governed 14 years, today no one in the region is talking about the ‚ÄúCaracas consensus.‚ÄĚ
PHOTO (Top): Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez attends a campaign rally at ‘Pachencho’ Romero stadium in the western city of Maracaibo November 25, 2007. REUTERS/Ho-Comando Zamora
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez (R) attend a ceremony to open the Borzouyeh petrochemical complex in Asalouyeh Seaport. July 2, 2007. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout
PHOTO (Insert Bottom): Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures as he speaks during the closing ceremony for the U.S.-Brazil CEO Forum in Sao Paulo October 10, 2008. Lula da Silva on REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker