Opinion

The Great Debate

With Chavez gone, what of ‘Chavismo’?

By Michael Shifter
March 7, 2013

“The End of the Chávez Era” That was the headline on Colombia’s major newspaper, El Tiempo, the day after Hugo Chávez’s death.

True, Chávez’s 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’s political history. Indeed, Venezuela has had its fair share. As the acute observer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning writer, noted soon after Chávez’s 1998 election, the new president’s seductive rhetoric recalled so many of the region’s other leading political figures — but he could well end up as yet another Latin American despot.

The difference, of course, was that Chávez, unlike his predecessors – indeed, unlike any other Latin American leader – 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 Chávez, Venezuela was too small. Given his outsized ambitions, he needed a larger stage – not just the continent, but the world – to form coalitions of like-minded nations and consolidate and project his power.

Chávez not only pursued this course with rare audacity in the region – some 18 nations formed part of his Petro Caribe scheme that benefited from oil at cut-rate prices – but also globally. As early as 2000, in defiance of United Nations sanctions, Chávez visited and lent support to Iraq’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, Chávez 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.

Chávez’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 Chávez 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 Chávez’s illness became so severe three months ago.

Still, Chavismo, the movement Chávez created and led, will probably survive for some time – if in a diminished form, without its singular dominant and charismatic figure.

The most likely scenario is that Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s designated successor and current vice president, will win the presidential election, in the context of enormous sympathy for Chávez. He can be expected to refer frequently to the “great leader” and invoke Chávez to rally support, as has been done in Argentina with Juan Perón and, now, by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with her late husband Néstor, 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 Chávez era – and which drew on frustrations with long-term social inequalities and resentments against the United States – cannot be sustained.

At a wider regional level, however, the “Chávez era” had been in decline long before the Venezuelan president’s death. The zenith of Chávez’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 Chávez’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 Chávez 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 Chávez and embracing a moderate, pragmatic stance. Humala’s government now adheres closely to what Chávez derided as “neo-liberal” policies. It can scarcely be described as leftist.

It is no accident that Humala’s political advisers during the 2011 campaign had previously worked for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, a hero to much of the Latin American left. During Lula’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 – 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 “Brasilia consensus.” The 1990s “Washington consensus,” with its potent free-market policies, left out the crucial social equity piece.

Whatever one might think about Chávez and his legacy, though he  governed 14 years, today no one in the region is talking about the “Caracas consensus.”

 

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

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

As opposed to Bush and most other US presidents, Hugo Chavez was elected by a majority of Venezuelans several times. Michael Shifter is one of many politruks employed by US “news” corporations to give respectability to the government line on which foreign leaders to demonise and which terrorists to reward.

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive
 

I agree, Micheal Shifter is toing the line of the US government, like all of the writers for Reuters and every other major news outlet in America. Our press is not free, we are only free to comment and mafe fun of it.

I wonder if Reuters would publish an opinion article of a Chinese, or Iranian, or a Russian journalist?

I dont think so.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

chavismo had a good nose for smelling the devil in the bush-cheney-rumsfield-”james steele”-petraeus gang

who is james steele?

steele’s the global motivation for the chavismo movement

steele, the dog-tagged scavenger of death in el salvador, central america and iraq

now hiding in a hole on an oil man’s ranch in texas
aka. “tick’s arse”

(quote) Pentagon investigating link between US military and torture centres in Iraq. A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic, published on Wednesday, disclosed that the US sent a veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee Iraqi commando units involved in some of the worst acts of torture during the American-led occupation.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar  /07/pentagon-investigating-link-militar y-torture?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive
 

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