Hugo Chavez, the 21st-century Socialist Caudillo

Venezuela’s charismatic exponent of the left in Latin American politics, Hugo Chavez, passed away on Tuesday, 5 March, from cancer at the age of 58. He had been repeatedly treated for his illness in Cuba and had undergone four operations in his losing battle against the disease that took his life. His death now leaves Venezuela on an increasingly difficult path as the costs of his aggressive social spending and years of underinvestment in new infrastructure may, in the end, overwhelm the government’s capability to guide the economy of that nation. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The once omnipresent symbol of Latin America’s “anti-imperialist” left had earlier vanished from public view after going to Cuba on 10 December 2012. This extended absence from Venezuela contributed to rumours his health was truly failing. Earlier last year he had been re-elected in October 2012 to his next six-year term of office, but he missed his own swearing-in ceremony on 10 January because he was in that Havana hospital, following surgery the month before.

Until his passing, he had been the touchstone for a whole new generation of Latin American leftist thinkers and dreamers – especially as the ageing Fidel Castro now was in an increasingly quiet retirement – as well as becoming an inspiration to millions of his own country’s poor – and beyond. Moreover, during his time in office, Chavez had also become the source of sustained criticism over the role of American business and the US government in the region. What happens in Venezuela next will almost certainly have a significant impact on the future of the region beyond Venezuela itself.

Hugo Chavez was born into a lower middle class family in the country’s open spaces of the western reaches of the Orinoco River basin. His father was a teacher and his mother a teaching assistant, but he grew up primarily in his grandmother’s dirt-floored, thatch-roofed home. As a young man, Chavez opted for a military career, becoming a paratrooper, and, as he rose through the ranks he had service in military efforts to suppress leftist guerrilla fighters. However, contact with those rebels and their ideas apparently led to a period when Chavez began to reshape his own political ideas, bending them sharply leftward.

As a 37-year-old officer, Chavez went on to help lead an ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt against the country’s then-president Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. The failure of that coup saw him sent to prison for two years. Then, six years later, he returned in triumph to national leadership, campaigning successfully for the presidency, in effect running against the foreign oil interests and the oligarchic families domestically that had so much of the country’s wealth under their control. An unsuccessful coup attempt against him in 2002 led to a very quick recognition by George W Bush’s administration of that new government – and that rather precipitate decision by the US may well have helped trigger even greater Chavez’s ire towards America.

Over the 14 years following his initial election to a two-year term of office, he was elected three additional times, after arranging for the writing and ratification of a new constitution that provided for six-year terms of office for the president. Chavez then built his increasing popularity on a range of social programmes such as new clinics and an array of social grants, as well as a controlled price that made for some of the cheapest petrol at the pump prices in the world – and equally low cooking and heating fuel costs. Moreover, he pushed a petroleum industry nationalisation drive, along with the nationalisation of other large industrial concerns, and that placed him squarely in conflict with the US during the Bush administration.

During his time as president, in one of his more romantic visions, Chavez advocated the unification of South America into one transcontinental nation, reviving Simon Bolivar’s vast unmet dream dating from the 1820s. In a more contemporary vein, Chavez had also rejected the so-called “Washington Consensus” promoted by various international financial institutions. That set of policies includes decreases in tariffs, adherence to tight government spending, the privatisation of state-owned industries and other elements from that school of economic orthodoxy.

During his time in office, Chavez built growing relationships with nations such as Libya, Cuba, Iran and Iraq that were similarly at odds with the US, appealing to these nations for moral and material support. His policies and statements also tapped into the traditional anti-Americanism that often seems to lie just below the surface in much of Latin America. One of Chavez’s key relationships – with Cuba – was lubricated by Venezuela’s continuing supply of oil to that island, replacing much of the petroleum imports lost by Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union. After becoming president, Chavez began providing 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba at significantly subsidised rates. In return, Castro’s government sent thousands of Cuban workers, from doctors and sports trainers to intelligence agents to work in Venezuela.

But he almost certainly cemented his place in the affection of many of his fellow Venezuelans with a masterful use of electronic media – primarily his frequent, marathon television appearances in 12-hour broadcasts on Sundays in which he spoke, danced and sang – usually fuelled by an unending stream of strong, sugary coffee. One analyst noted that a crucial source of Chavez’s continuing appeal to many was that he had the talents of an extraordinarily gifted televangelist who could connect with his supporters at a kind of subliminal level.

His death now puts the future of his divided, oil-rich nation on a much more uncertain path going forward. According to the constitution he had willed into being, an election must now take place within 30 days to elect a new president. Acting President Nicolas Maduro is expected to stand for election in the Chavez tradition, and will likely face opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the man who has come closer than any other politician to defeating Chavez in an actual election – the last time around losing by 11 points. Capriles is governor of the state that encompasses much of metropolitan region of Caracas, the capital city.

International responses to Chavez’s passing included the personal anguish of his close ideological and political ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had said, “We are hurt. We are destroyed by the news of the passing of brother and companion Hugo Chavez Frias. Strength, courage, greater unity than ever because this process of liberation, not just of the Venezuelan people, but also of the Latin American people, must continue. Chavez is more alive than ever and will continue to be the inspiration for the liberation of the people.”

By contrast, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, elected two years ago after putting himself at an obvious remove from Chavez’s radical image, expressed condolences to the Venezuelan people and the Chavez family, adding he was sending “our Bolivarian and Latin American solidarity” to them. Humala added his hope Venezuela could go forward with its leadership transition in a “peaceful way within the democratic cause”.

In this case, “Bolivarian” refers to the near-sainted memory of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of Latin America from Spain in the early 19th century. Chavez had made a public point of channelling Bolivar’s memory and continuing appeal to many in the country, even going to the point of renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and building a huge new mausoleum for Bolivar’s remains.

Meanwhile, Dilma Rousseff, president of the continent’s effective hegemon, Brazil, hedged her bets just a bit. Rousseff told journalists, “Today a great Latin American died. On many occasions, the Brazilian government did not fully agree with President Hugo Chavez but today, as always, we recognise in him a great leader, an irreparable loss and, above all, a friend of Brazil.” The Obama administration also offered a cautious tone in its message addressed to the Venezuelan people, hoping for better relations in the future, although that cause was probably not aided by the expulsion of two US diplomats just hours before Chavez’s death.

Despite Chavez’s fierce rhetoric directed towards the United States – he had famously (or, infamously, if you live in Texas) told the UN General Assembly that the devil had been in that same hall he was in and that the smell of sulphur still lingered. This was a not particularly subtle dig at his rival George W Bush who had in fact spoken at the same General Assembly plenary session just the day before.

Nevertheless, despite this language, Venezuela remained one of the leading oil exporters to the US, even after the effective nationalisation of all remaining privately held oil production in 2007. Moreover, in a particularly effective bit of petroleum-fuelled “soft power”, during the harsh winter of 2006-7, Chavez arranged for special emergency shipments of heating oil to fuel-short, freezing New England states – publicly tweaking the Bush administration’s nose in the process.

Now, after nearly a decade and a half of a Venezuela under the firm control of Hugo Chavez, the country’s political balance may be up for grabs – and there is a chance for a less contentious relationship with the US in this as well. Although Chavez has only just died, analysts have already begun to wonder aloud about whether his passing will now provide an open window for a new chapter both for Venezuela’s relations with the US, as well as with the future of “the left” project in Latin American politics more generally, now that its chief champion and cheerleader is no longer around.

While his supporters often lauded Chavez for the significant improvements in Venezuelan social welfare, a more thorough look at the data suggests much of the growth in income and improvement in the conditions of that nation’s lower social strata roughly coincided with the more general rise in incomes across the region as a whole over the past decade. This was generally due to the sharp rise in petroleum-derived national incomes and other commodity based earnings during the long commodity boom cycle.

Ideologically, during his decade and more as president, beyond his populist ideology of “Bolivarism” (although historically Bolivar’s political appeal had usually been more a tool of the Latin American right), Chavez had also championed what he described as “21st-century socialism”. This included the nationalisation of hundreds of companies, the seizure of large privately held land holdings, price controls and currency regulations.

In his speeches blaming capitalism for his society’s ills, Chavez insisted his policies had made Venezuela a more prosperous country – and, as a bonus, had made it increasingly independent of American meddling or influence as well. But in recent years, Venezuela’s economy has increasingly been affected by declining oil production, power blackouts, growing food shortages, sharply rising urban violence, rampant inflation and an increasing scarcity of investment and investment capital. Many analysts argue the net effect of these Chavez-ordered growing government interventions – ranging from price controls to land and corporate seizures – simply chased away private enterprise and investment. 

While Chavez’s Venezuela had been the beneficiary of historically high oil prices, the Venezuelan economy actually only expanded at about 3% a year during his tenure – and much of Latin America surged beyond that level. Critics who have looked closely at the country say that in the Chavez era, his administrations failed to nurture sustainable growth or make fundamental improvements and modernisation in the economy.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank, Inter-American Dialogue, observed, “Chavez deserves credit for putting his finger on the real legitimate grievances that many Venezuelans felt. Where he failed was in constructing alternatives that really produced results.” In fact, analysts say that Chavez’s long tenure was extensively underpinned by the use of good old, plain vanilla-style political patronage and a pronounced streak of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

In his grandiose plan to unite Latin America to achieve the Bolivarian dream, Chavez advocated an alliance he called ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America. To move towards this idea, Chavez purchased over $2.5 billion worth of Argentinian government bonds, established the Bank of the South to counter the Washington-based multilateral lenders, and pledged to build an oil pipeline across the continent, in addition to new housing estates, new highways and oil refineries. However, Venezuela’s increasingly opaque financing has made it difficult to determine just how much of this list was actually funded and completed. In fact, by the end of 2012, many of Chavez’s most ambitious projects — the pipeline, the bank, and a new refinery in Brazil — had been quietly mothballed, as Venezuela’s economy increasingly faltered.

Throughout, Fidel Castro had always been something of a lodestar for Hugo Chavez’s ideas. Astonishingly, besides their ideological goals, it turns out that they shared one more thing. Just like Castro, as a young man, Chavez had been desperate to become an American major league baseball pitcher – he reportedly even entered the military academy because he had heard the school had a particularly strong team. One can only imagine how Latin American history might have been very different if Castro and Chavez had attained their teenaged goals – joining other Latin American greats like Tony Oliva, Roberto Clemente and Camillo Pascual as legends in America’s national game. DM

Read more:

  • Venezuela Decrees Nationalization of Last Foreign Controlled Oil Fields at Venezuela
  • Chávez Dies, Leaving a Bitterly Divided Venezuela at the New York Times
  • Hugo Chavez is dead (includes videos from Caracas) at Global
  • A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement at the New York Times
  • Venezuela after Chávez – Now for the reckoning at the Economist
  • Hugo Chavez, passionate but polarizing Venezuelan president, dead at 58 at the Washington Post

Photo: Supporters of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez react to the announcement of his death outside the hospital where he was being treated, in Caracas, March 5, 2013.  REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


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