With Hugo Chávez’s passing, some further remarks on issues facing Venezuela in the immediate future.
First, there will almost inevitably be some political bloviating that his death marks the “end of the left” in Latin America (primarily because such articles have appeared periodically for nearly a year). Suffice to say, such narratives will be as lazy as they are wrong. Though many of Chávez’s opponents in the US media have liked to portray him as the head of some uniform bloc of Latin American leaders, nothing could be further from the truth. Even while he had close allies in people like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of those men were their own politicians with their own domestic backgrounds in their own countries, elected by their own electorates based on their own policies. The idea that they were pawns in some bizarre hemispheric chess match is absurd. While they may have sympathized with Chávez regularly, they have had their own agendas and their own methods of ruling, methods that have regularly demonstrated significant distinctions from Chávez. Though Chávez was a vocal individual, he was far from a ringleader or a commandant for others; as President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (another of these allegedly-“left” countries, and no slouch in regional politics by any stretch of the imagination) put it, Brazil “did not always agree with Chávez.” Narratives that treat him as the leader of a monolithic left in Latin America will show nothing but the authors’ own ignorance of the region.
Second, the process for selecting the next president will be worth watching. According to the Venezuelan constitution, a new election must be held in the next thirty days. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, acting on Chávez’s behalf for the past few months, has certainly had a chance to learn the ropes, but the constant focus on Chávez’s health even in his own governmental declarations has not really shed light on how he might govern should he win the office, nor how capable he is of governing; and even if he wins the election, it is not clear if he will be able to maintain the support from a variety of groups that Chávez sustained.
And then there’s the opposition, which inevitably will hope to take advantage of this new opening, but which has been unable to really create a concrete platform that might appeal to the majority of Venezuelan voters. Indeed, whether the opposition can remain unified witout Chávez, who was the key component in bringing a heterogeneous group of voters together, remains to be seen. Certainly, it seems Maduro has a leg up on the opposition in this context, what with his ties to Chávez, his (brief) tenure as de facto president, the emotional appeal many Chávez supporters will feel in continuity with Maduro, and the brief amount of time the opposition has to try to organize a successful campaign. Either way, though, whoever follows Chávez in the longer-term is in many ways going to have to contend with Chávez’s ghost, a task that could prove particularly burdensome if the economy and social programs that oil has supported for so many years begin to deteriorate.
What role the military will play going forward is another matter looming over Venezuela’s immediate future. While Chávez was able to sow strong ties with and support from the military (due to his own military background), Maduro does not have such ties, nor is it clear whether any opposition figures who may seek office can find support among the military. Given how instrumental the military was in Chávez’s rise, especially in the early years, there is a real question of how the military will respond to this new context: whether it will sit on the sidelines or actively work to support a particular candidate remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that it will be a silent actor in the process of succession or in the implementation of policies going forward.
Additionally, and perhaps somewhat tied to the outcome of the previous three points, we’ll finally get a sense of if Chávez’s reforms can and/or will be institutionalized, and how different groups (Maduro, the next president, the military, the public) might assert themselves in the process. In many ways, this is the crux of defining Chavismo; whether it was a movement that transformed society, or a movement that was defined in a man, will become apparent in Chávez’s absence.
As for portrayals of Chávez himself, they have tended to focus on the monolithic and the simplistic, thanks in no small part to his own efforts to appeal to a personalist populism-of-sorts, to say nothing of the way media focus on his health in the last year-plus added to the individualistic narrative that equated Chávez-as-Venezuela. That said, there’s no question he was a complicated figure, having effected some real improvements for many Venezuelans even while making some bad moves that could display a singular use of power against his opponents.
Simply put, Chávez was neither as terrible as his most strident detractors maintained, nor as perfect as his most ardent supporters insisted. Beyond that, only time will tell the long-term impacts Chávez’s fourteen years of governance, social reform, and international relations will have on Venezuela.