Hugo Chávez is the most visible Latin America leader in decades. He lies seriously ill in a Cuban hospital, and his return to Venezuelan politics seems uncertain. What are we to make of this controversial and contradictory figure? A broader historical and comparative perspective can help make sense of the man and his legacy. Chávez himself constantly evokes history to support his project of twenty-first-century Venezuelan socialism. Like most political leaders, Chávez uses history in a highly selective and sometimes confusing way. Chávez sees himself as a continuing in the footsteps of Simón Bolívar, the great leader of South America’s struggles for independence from Spain in the early 19th century. He named his project after Bolívar, gives speeches in front of images of the great liberator, exhumed his remains and built a lavish new mausoleum to house them in downtown Caracas. However, Bolívar, the white son of wealthy Venezuelan planters was certainly no socialist and, by the end of his life, was a profoundly disillusioned and conservative man. In his letters he despaired of the capacity of Latin Americans to govern themselves democratically. Chávez elides all this, and focuses instead on Bolívar’s dreams of geo-political unity in South America. Chávez also sees himself as the corrective to all that was wrong with Venezuelan politics in the four decades before 1998, during which two increasingly corrupt civilian parties alternated in power, marginalized the left, shared state patronage and oil wealth among their supporters, and generally excluded the poor from politics and development. Many of Chávez’s criticisms of more recent Venezuelan history make more sense. However, what has he offered in its place?
Chávez’s record is mixed. Even his critics concede that he has made Venezuelan politics far more inclusive and boosted political participation among the marginalized; international observers report that elections have generally been freely contested and fair. In 2007, Chávez narrowly lost a referendum on a reform aiming to abolish presidential term limits. Venezuela’s courts, legislature and press were hardly paragons of liberal-democratic virtue and autonomy before 1998. However, Chávez has failed to strengthen them, and has instead steadily amassed executive power at the expense of other branches of government, and made the polarization of political debate a central strategy. Like many Latin American governments in the last decade, Chávez has increased social spending, on health and education in particular, and enjoyed some success reducing rates of poverty, illiteracy and child mortality. Only time will tell whether social programs represent efficient, long-term investments in human capital, or have worked largely as mechanisms of political patronage. What is certain is that Chávez has failed to carry out one profound, necessary, and very difficult change: diversifying Venezuela’s economy away from its historical dependence on oil. The true test of his legacy will come when oil prices fall. In the last decade, South American countries have moved away from the traditionally weighty U.S. influence, and asserted more independence on trade, natural resources, and regional co-operation. Chávez has certainly played his part in this larger shift, and Venezuela’s oil wealth has allowed for the cultivation of regional alliances. However, oil also makes Chávez’s project difficult to emulate in other countries which are less dependent on a single natural resource.
Will the Bolivarian Revolution march on without Chávez? In Cuba, Fidel Castro has managed his gradual departure from political leadership expertly, and most observers do not expect Castro’s death to trigger any rapid changes in Cuban politics. By contrast, the future of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution looks a lot more fragile and uncertain. Chávez has been around for a lot less time than Cuba’s seasoned revolutionaries, and his project is far less institutionalized and, perhaps, legitimate; Chávez continues to confront a large and vocal opposition movement, particularly strong among the middle class. Should Chávez fail to return to centre stage, this will obviously energize the opposition, but will also probably expose some divisions within Chávez’s coalition; and, as ever in South America, the posture of different factions within the armed forces is likely to be crucial. Chávez headed off an attempted coup in 2002 with the aid of key groups of officers, and officers have become increasingly prominent in public office since then.