Latin America Without Chavez?

An exploration of the rise and fall of Chavez’s left-wing populism, not only in Venezuela but in the wider Latin America region.

Latin America has a double penchant: for the past and for drama. Though the continent’s response to the world’s economic doldrums is today the envy of many countries, particularly in Europe, endemic inequality has always allowed populists a high hand in shaping politics. Hence the connection with drama: caudillos in Latin America – preferably with some kind of military outfit – appeal to the people by using dramatic rhetoric and gestures to get rid of the nation’s enemies, both internal and external. When by the very end of the last century Chavez entered the scene, many observers thought his was just another example of a not too distant past. They were at the same time right and wrong.

Apart from his undoubted connection with the populist tradition, Chavez was a revolutionary. But instead of following the failed guerrilla warfare or the long tradition of military domination – which were both politically incorrect by the 21st century’s international standards – he articulated a simple new strategy: the use of democratic garments to refurbish both a radical anti-West (mainly anti-US) policy and an anti-Liberal revolution.

This new route, inspired by the ferociously nationalist and anti-US Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s, had two main components. Internally, it was based on a step by step effort to erode both the market economy and democratic institutions. Internationally, the Bolivarian Revolution led by Chavez sought to take advantage of the world’s longest period of high oil prices to support countries in difficulty and to encourage them to emulate Venezuela.

And it worked

By the time Chavez came to power the region had overcome the worst period of high inflation and rampant poverty typical of the 1980s, Latin America’s so-called “lost decade”. However, because inequality persisted, corroding the economic gains and the transition to democracy in the region, it led in at least a handful of countries to an acute expectation gap between what the poorer echelons of society longed for and what they were getting. As traditional political organizations failed to fill the gap, the time was ripe for populists.

However, in Venezuela the magic of the populist wave has been inextricably linked to Chavez himself. His administration not based on tangible achievements. Instead, it is designed as a continuous reality show. Instead of betting for solid solutions for the country, President Chavez permanently presents himself talking and seducing Venezuelans for hours on end, showing an inexhaustible energy and a bombastic rhetoric. This is also his favorite method for cornering his adversaries, provoking them and using every ounce of public institutional weight to avoid solid competitors entering the political scene.

But not all has been drama and outmaneuvering his opponents. Perhaps the most indelible mark of Chavismo, both in Venezuela and elsewhere, has been placing his revolution as the continuation of Bolivar, the region’s most revered founding father. The market economy has no epics, at least not in Latin America. It came to the region’s shores through American or European companies. Only recently have Brazilian or Mexican economic achievements been significant – with the emergence of individual business leaders and of internationally recognized brands. On the other hand, a market economy and a democracy can be messy, involving an intractable negotiating process, illustrated last month by the standoff between US Republicans and Democrats to avoid default.

In the early stages of democratic politics, leaders need to understand and appeal to the emotions of their voters and this is especially so in the case of Latin America. In the case of Venezuela, the Bolivarian saga has been seasoned with the Cuban heritage and other novel additions, allowing Chavez, a former paratroop commander, to forge a narrative depicting the revolutionary efforts as both meaningful and full of hope. He has succeeded in appealing to vast sections of the disenfranchised poor with no political connections to the traditional parties and with a longing for economic change as they feel that democracy has failed to deliver.

A short Golden Age

The best international times for Chavismo occurred between 2000 and 2008. Ever since 1958, when democracy was established in Venezuela, the country had followed a moderate foreign policy. At times the country chose to act as troubleshooter, as was the case in pushing for settlements in the Central American civil wars. Before that, it had proposed the creation of OPEC, to help oil producers worldwide to obtain better deals for their mineral riches. Other Venezuelan presidents were very keen in promoting the Movement of Non Aligned Countries during the Cold War.

Chavez broke with this long-standing tradition. Through a literal reading of Bolivar’s teachings, he chose to confront the US as an evil empire as well as any other country in the region openly pursuing a market friendly option. In hindsight, the Bush era could not have come at a better moment. In confronting him Chavez managed to build worldwide allegiances from a long list of countries with real or alleged grievances vis-à-vis the US. Local US allies like presidents Fox in Mexico and Uribe in Colombia became local demons subject to permanent attacks.

Chavez’s greatest achievement, however, was in exporting his peculiar revolution, which allowed him to add up solid allies such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. In those countries, emerging leaders such as Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and Ortega in Nicaragua followed closely the strategy of undermining liberal democracy and seeking reelection after reelection. Venezuela also struck important deals with social movements like the Sao Paulo Forum (the Left-oriented opposite of Davos) and with guerrilla movements such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), in neighboring Colombia. Chavez also built a very close alliance with Argentina and Brazil. In the former case, Venezuela used a healthy checkbook to alleviate Argentina’s external debt pressures, which had accumulated as a result of the collapse of the currency board the country had set up in the 1990s to beat inflation.

In the case of Brazil, the reasons were different. Brazil had been emerging as the new power broker in the region, by virtue of its size, its economic dynamism, and its wide political consensus to alleviate poverty. So strong was Chavez’s attachment to Brazil that he opted to sacrifice Venezuela’s membership and leadership in the Andean Community, the oldest regional integration experience, on the altar of Brazil and Mercosur (the Southern South America common market). Curiously, his reason was that Andean countries, in particular Colombia, had been pursuing free trade agreements with the US. To this day, however, no agreement with Colombia has been signed by the US Congress.

Following prior traditions, Venezuela also used its oil wealth as soft power by weaving an extended network of agreements in the Caribbean and Central America.

“El que mucho abarca poco aprieta”

He/she who covers too much, will have a weak grip, goes the Spanish saying. In the event, the Bolivarian Revolution overstretched its diplomatic and financial capacities. One consequence of the financial crisis was oil price instability, which entirely changed the international context. As a result, Venezuela has been unable to keep up the pace of its financial obligations and deals. In addition, the country has badly mismanaged its oil wealth. It has accumulated a very high internal debt. Furthermore, by signing multiple deals with China and other financial supporters, the Chavez administration has compromised the country’s future oil production.

Several factors have led to the decline of the Bolivarian Revolution internationally. Perhaps the most dramatic, was Colombia’s highly successful strategy against the FARC, as a result of a huge military buildup, vast and intense operations and a very fruitful use of intelligence by the Uribe administration. As a result the most prominent hostages were liberated, many of FARC’s military capabilities were destroyed, and two of its high commanders, Raúl Reyes and el Mono Jojoy, were cornered and killed. By virtue of the information provided by Raúl Reyes’ laptops, it became obvious that Chavez had been in cahoots with the FARC, to undermine former president Alvaro Uribe’s grip of the country. As Chavez’s Colombian strategy failed, he was forced into seeking a new status quo with Colombia, which was possible once Uribe was replaced in 2009 by newly elected President Santos.

A second event was more symbolic. It resulted from the phrase Por qué no te Callas? (why don’t you just shut up), uttered by King Juan Carlos of Spain in December 2007 when President Chavez repeatedly interrupted Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero’s speech during an international meeting in Chile. Abruptly thrown at Chavez in a moment of impatience, it gave public expression of what many leaders and people around the Latin America region were already feeling.  Chavez lost face and perhaps even legitimacy as he was put in his place.

Honduras perhaps is the best example of how the Chavista strategy began to run out of steam. Under President Zelaya, a rich landowner, Honduras had willingly accepted Venezuela’s financial support, both oil subsidies and other kind. However, when Zelaya’s presidential term was due to end he attempted to follow the Chavez reelection strategy by pitting himself against a wide and powerful coalition including traditional parties, the legislature, the judiciary, and the military. Zelaya took on more than he could handle and was thrown out of the country by the military, causing a major controversy in the Inter American system.  Isolated by the OAS (Organization of American States), the UN, and a vast majority of political forces in Latin America, the government that emerged from the coup organized fresh elections within five months, which witnessed a relatively high turnout and the defeat of pro Zelaya forces.

Until the beginning of 2011, Honduras’ newly elected president, Lobos remained isolated. However, an agreement put forward by Colombia’s president, with the participation of Chavez, led to the OAS withdrawing its sanctions while former president Zelaya was allowed to return to the country with no trial. With the international acceptance of the new government in Honduras, Chavez’s Bolivarian strategy has failed in Central America.

Ever since, most political movements of the Left of the political spectrum have avoided close identification with the troubled Bolivarian leader.

The Last Ditch Standing in

2011 did not begin as a good year for Chavez. In the 2010 congressional election, his political movement failed to retain the 2/3 majority in Congress’ while obtaining less than 50% of the votes. Chavez’s party would have done worse had it not been for abusive electoral redistricting. Additionally, a long list of shortcomings became evident in the energy-rich country: power shortages in most parts of the country, very high crime rates, vast networks of corruption in the PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned petroleum company),the highest inflation rate in the continent, shortages of food, and more recently a wave of riots in many jails across the country. The common denominator of all these problems is a rampant institutional breakdown. The revolution has destroyed many existing institutions without replacing them with solid sustainable alternatives.

If this string of problems was not enough, in June this year Chavez was operated on to remove a pelvic abscess. The operation revealed the existence of cancer in an undisclosed part of his body. In keeping with the tradition of secrecy that autocrats follow especially when their health is concerned, Chavez has traveled to Havana in two occasions under maximum security measures, either to be operated on or for chemotherapy. Nothing has been revealed about his condition. In both occasions he has promptly returned to deal with the internal crisis in the ranks of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The location of Chavez’s cancerous formation, presumably either prostatic or in the colon is a closely guarded secret; the same secrecy prevails about the stage of his illness. In any case, it is certain that fighting cancer will be his most tortuous battle, which will affect his prospects for reelection.

The results of the 2012 elections cannot be predicted. His illness may prove a fantastic weapon for a rebound of his image as a Super-leader, capable of fantastic achievements. However, the odds do not favor him. He may have to decline running for yet another election. In any case, the Bolivarian Revolution is today a caricature of its best years and the hill to be climbed is very steep, even for a leader who may defeat cancer.

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