Hugo Chavez, one of Latin America’s most formidable politicians, will be remembered for his enduring political acumen and virile charm. But ultimately, the great caudillo fell short in his goal of establishing an alternative model of development for his country, and for the world. The Bolivarian revolution – named for the independence hero Simon Bolivar – did not succeed.
Fourteen years after he came to office, Mr. Chavez leaves the Caribbean nation of 29 million with less poverty, but also with a weaker democracy, a polarized electorate, a high crime rate and a movement that cannot be sustained without its leader. His socialist policies depended on Venezuela’s great oil wealth, and so did his diplomacy. He propped up Cuba with heavily subsidized oil (100,000 barrels a day) and attacked the U.S., even as Venezuela remains heavily dependent on oil exports to that country.
There is no doubt the 58-year-old leader, with his signature red beret and military fatigues, had an almost messianic hold on supporters. After years of being excluded from the political process, the poor could relate to his informal language and folksy style. Every week on his live television program, Alo Presidente, Mr. Chavez sang, read poems, danced and talked, sometimes for hours. He had 3.2 million followers on Twitter. “Chavez always loved the limelight. He was always the best talker,” said a former Canadian diplomat who served in Venezuela from 2003 to 2006. “But he also played to Venezuela’s deep dictatorial roots.”
The missions he created to spread the country’s huge oil wealth more equitably did succeed in decreasing poverty and illiteracy, and in improving health outcomes. However, Mr. Chavez failed to create a political system with a meaningful system of checks and balances. Instead, under his leadership, control was centralized under the president, the state bureaucracy became more corrupt and unaccountable, and the judiciary less independent. The opposition and press were under constant attack. “He eroded the quality of democracy in a country with a long history of democracy,” notes Max Cameron, a Latin American specialist at the University of British Columbia. “He bullied opponents and made black lists for people who opposed him.”
These anti-democratic tendencies came out early in his life. Born to a poor family of teachers in Sabaneta, Barinas state, Mr. Chavez, who had Indian and Spanish roots, was one of seven children. His grandmother raised him. Even as a young man, he had a tremendous sense of destiny, and joined the military with the idea of carrying out a coup, which he eventually did in 1992, against the government of then-president Carlos Andres Perez. The coup failed, and he spent two years in a military jail before he was pardoned. He eventually came to power through the ballot box in December, 1998. In 2002, el comandante himself suffered a coup attempt, one that he blamed on the U.S. He returned to office a few days later, and went on to win by a larger margin of victory in the 2006 election.
Increasing authoritarianism marked his later years in office; in 2006, Mr. Chavez nationalized electricity companies and held a referendum which eventually passed to change the Constitution to allow unlimited terms in office for elected officials.
With his passing, the country enters a period of instability and uncertainty. Many believe there can be no Chavismo without Chavez, and that the factions within the movement will fight for power and self-destruct. His self-appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, is favoured by the civilian wing within the movement, and by Cuba, while the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, has the support of the military. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the Governor of Miranda state, who lost the 2012 presidential election by 11 points, is also a credible challenger.
His successor will face steep economic challenges. Though Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, the sector is beset by inefficiency and the economy remains overly reliant on oil revenues which account for 30 per cent of gross domestic product. Oil output at the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela is lower than it was in 1999. There has been no foreign investment in this sector for four years. Inflation is high, and the currency overvalued. “He is leaving a huge mess behind,” said the diplomat. “There is no transparent budget, and last year the government wildly overspent because it was an election year. The deficit and the debt are out of control.”
This ultimately is the Chavez legacy. It is a shame that he did not put his political gifts to a better end, and set Venezuela, a country he so loved, on a path to long-term economic growth and development and the strengthening of democratic institutions. Its neighbour, Brazil, has succeeded in doing this, as well as creating a more equitable society. In the end, perhaps that model would have served Mr. Chavez better, instead of the one he chose to follow.