No matter who wins in Venezuela, Chavez’s legacy is secure
Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president. Will Hugo Chavez’s legacy be fleeting? Or will Chavez shape politics and public policy from the grave? What will happen to Chavismo, Chavez’s unique form of state capitalism and paternal socialism?
On these questions, most analysts have not looked much further than the upcoming election. For many, a victory by Nicolas Maduro is an important signal that the Chavez legacy has legs, while a win by Henrique Capriles would be a message that Chavismo has its challenges.
Regardless of who wins, Chavez’s legacy does not depend on any short-term electoral outcome. It depends on his Misiones.
The Misiones are a series of targeted social programs ranging from healthcare to education to housing. The best known and most used is Mision Mercal—a subsidized supermarket with basic foodstuffs and household items. For the most part, this and similar programs have been targeted at Chavez’s political base — poorer Venezuelans — who otherwise would not have access to such basic services or could not afford basic food items.
The Misiones have incredible scope and reach: Eighty-eight percent of Venezuelans reported that they personally, someone in their family or someone else they know has benefited from at least one of these programs.
The Misiones have had a powerful impact on popular support for Chavez’s regime. For instance, those few Venezuelans who had 10 or more “touch points” with the Mision system were almost five times more likely to approve of Chavez’s government than those who had never benefited from the system — 90 percent approval versus 23 percent. The vast majority of the population had one to six experiences with the Misiones, with most approving of the government.
Source: Ipsos polling, January 2013
While many see the Misiones as a sub-optimal program with long-term negative impacts on the economy and on people’s behavior, the programs are politically influential for three main reasons. They’ve had a direct impact on the well-being of program recipients—mostly the lower classes that made up Chavez’s base. In large part, they meet many of the basic needs of voters, such as food, education, and healthcare — all “bread and butter” issues that get politicians elected. They also serve as anti-cyclical buffers ‑ cushions against economic downturns and macroeconomic instability. The Misiones are also concrete policy examples that helped reinforce Chavez’s image as “the man of the people” and “someone who cares for the poor.” Put differently, the Misiones communicated to voters that Chavez could deliver on his promises.
Even the opposition has recognized the importance of the Misiones. In the presidential dispute with Chavez in 2012 and now in 2013, Capriles has promised to maintain the Misiones — an obvious acknowledgement of the symbolic and political power of these programs.
Whether Maduro or Capriles wins on Sunday, the Misiones are here to stay. New governments might tweak them or reformulate them with the objective of improving their efficiency, but they meet the needs of a large segment of Venezuelan voters. We see little possibility of wholesale abolition of such programs. That is a victory for Chavez and his legacy.