With Chavez gone, what of ‘Chavismo’?
â€śThe End of the ChĂˇvez Eraâ€ť That was the headline on Colombiaâ€™s major newspaper, El Tiempo, the day after Hugo ChĂˇvezâ€™s death.
True, ChĂˇvezâ€™s controversial and colorful 14-year rule has ended, and Venezuela has lost a president who evoked uncommonly intense passions among followers and detractors.Â Â 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 Americaâ€™s political history. Indeed, Venezuela has had its fair share. As the acute observer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombiaâ€™s Nobel Prize-winning writer, noted soon after ChĂˇvezâ€™s 1998 election, the new presidentâ€™s seductive rhetoric recalled so many of the regionâ€™s other leading political figures — but he could well end up as yet another Latin American despot.
The difference, of course, was that ChĂˇvez, unlike his predecessors â€“ indeed, unlike any other Latin American leader â€“ 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 ChĂˇvez, Venezuela was too small. Given his outsized ambitions, he needed a larger stage â€“ not just the continent, but the world â€“ to form coalitions of like-minded nations and consolidate and project his power.
ChĂˇvez not only pursued this course with rare audacity in the region â€“ some 18 nations formed part of his Petro Caribe scheme that benefited from oil at cut-rate prices â€“ but also globally. As early as 2000, in defiance of United Nations sanctions, ChĂˇvez visited and lent support to Iraqâ€™s 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, ChĂˇvez 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.
ChĂˇvezâ€™s 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 ChĂˇvez 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 ChĂˇvezâ€™s illness became so severe three months ago.
Still, Chavismo, the movement ChĂˇvez created and led, will probably survive for some time â€“ if in a diminished form, without its singular dominant and charismatic figure.
The most likely scenario is that Nicolas Maduro, ChĂˇvezâ€™s designated successor and current vice president, will win the presidential election, in the context of enormous sympathy for ChĂˇvez. He can be expected to refer frequently to the â€śgreat leaderâ€ť and invoke ChĂˇvez to rally support, as has been done in Argentina with Juan PerĂłn and, now, by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with her late husband NĂ©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 ChĂˇvez era â€“ and which drew on frustrations with long-term social inequalities and resentments against the United States â€“ cannot be sustained.
At a wider regional level, however, the â€śChĂˇvez eraâ€ť had been in decline long before the Venezuelan presidentâ€™s death. The zenith of ChĂˇvezâ€™s 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 ChĂˇvezâ€™s 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 ChĂˇvez 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 ChĂˇvez and embracing a moderate, pragmatic stance. Humalaâ€™s government now adheres closely to what ChĂˇvez derided as â€śneo-liberalâ€ť policies. It can scarcely be described as leftist.
It is no accident that Humalaâ€™s political advisers during the 2011 campaign had previously worked for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio â€śLulaâ€ť da Silva, a hero to much of the Latin American left. During Lulaâ€™s 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 â€“ 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 â€śBrasilia consensus.â€ť The 1990s â€śWashington consensus,â€ť with its potent free-market policies, left out the crucial social equity piece.
Whatever one might think about ChĂˇvez and his legacy, though he Â governed 14 years, today no one in the region is talking about the â€śCaracas consensus.â€ť
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