Venezuela: A New Start?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

The death of President Hugo Chávez yesterday, as has been duly noted, marks the beginning of a new era – new opportunities and new challenges – for Venezuela.  In view of the country’s history and institutional weaknesses through the 1990s, some of the convulsions of his 13 years in power may have been inevitable, but the need is now compelling, across the political spectrum, to take a sober look at the future, set aside some of the stalemated grudge matches, and get serious about becoming something better.

It’s easy to predict at least some short-term instability, bombastic rhetoric, and jejune nationalism, such as some fringe Chavistas’ allegation that the United States was responsible for Chávez’s death.  It’s harder for Venezuelans and outsiders alike to figure out how this country, hindered by the original sins that plague all rentier economies, learns how to do politics in a transparent, inclusive manner.  For analysts like us, the key thing is to set aside wishful thinking and keep our eye on the fundamental drivers of change.  Some thoughts:

  • For better or worse, Chávez had an impact that – if not as transcendental as he wished – dismantled the key institutional pillars of the sclerotic Venezuelan political system.  Beyond that, his legacy includes the profound and intentional division of Venezuelan society and politics into two camps – a tense split that did not exist (or was sublimated) 20 years ago and will take a long time to heal, as has the cleavage around Peronism in Argentina.  Like Peronism, over time chavismo need not necessarily have a standard left-right quality, and it is likely to retain a cult around Chávez’s persona, larger in death than in life.  Evita a la venezolana.
  • Chávez wasn’t the regional or global threat that the Bush Administration made him out to be, but he did open space for a particular species of Latin American populism – call it radical, “socialist,” or clientelist – that coincided with a broader U.S. withdrawal from Latin America.  Few observers could have imagined that this former military colonel – a failed putschist – could capitalize on the region’s crisis of representation and development to bring about the emergence and prosperity of the ALBA coalition and the identities it fostered.  The lifeline of petro-dollars that Chavez opened, a tool that, it is often forgotten, had been deployed by previous Venezuelan governments to gain outsize presence on the international stage, explains some of his influence, but his forceful personality and the siren song of his peculiar Bolivarian ideology multiplied his impact.  His model was not replicated elsewhere, but his fervent regional pride was.
  • Chavez’s successors, of any political stripe, will test Washington’s capacity to keep its hands off.  Venezuela – even the opposition – has changed, and United States policymakers will hear rhetoric and see things, such as a relationship with Cuba that’s likely both to shape and to survive both countries’ transitions, that will test their self-discipline.  Chávez is gone, and chavismo, though certain to endure, will inevitably change.  But Venezuela’s need for space – space granted by its neighbors and the United States – to grow and even make mistakes remains a constant.  Over the 15 years in which Chávez dominated the scene, from his first election in 1998, Washington sometimes resisted the temptation to play into the game, but more than occasionally took the bait.  Washington has often misread Latin America and, by endorsing the 2002 coup against Chávez and other actions, actually strengthened the Venezuelan president domestically and regionally.  Chávez’s passing presents an opportunity for a fresh start for the United States, too.
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  1. The contrast is stark between the statements by President Barack Obama and former President Jimmy Carter on the death of President Hugo Chávez. President Obama’s lack of empathy and humanity is precisely the kind of arrogance your blog correctly argues the United States should avoid at this moment.

    Statement From Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the Death of Hugo Chavez:
    Rosalynn and I extend our condolences to the family of Hugo Chávez Frías. We met Hugo Chávez when he was campaigning for president in 1998 and The Carter Center was invited to observe elections for the first time in Venezuela. We returned often, for the 2000 elections, and then to facilitate dialogue during the political conflict of 2002-2004. We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized. Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chávez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen.
    President Chávez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment. During his 14-year tenure, Chávez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration. Venezuelan poverty rates were cut in half, and millions received identification documents for the first time allowing them to participate more effectively in their country’s economic and political life.
    At the same time, we recognize the divisions created in the drive towards change in Venezuela and the need for national healing. We hope that as Venezuelans mourn the passing of President Chávez and recall his positive legacies ⒠ especially the gains made for the poor and vulnerable ⒠ the political leaders will move the country forward by building a new consensus that ensures equal opportunities for all Venezuelans to participate in every aspect of national life.

    * * * *
    White House Statement
    March 5, 2013
    At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.
    As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

  2. I would love to know more details on this line: “hindered by the original sins that plague all rentier economies”.

    Might the author offer a paragraph by way of explanation please.

    And, in a somewhat connected way, does this line about Chavez’s impact “his legacy includes the profound and intentional division of Venezuelan society and politics into two camps” illustrate a reverse of the “original sins” perhaps?

    • Fulton

       /  March 7, 2013

      Rentier economies — those in which wealth is derived mostly, if not exclusively, from the extraction of natural resources — develop political systems and cultures focused on controlling and distributing that wealth, with little regard to the institutions and political culture necessary for a modern democracy. Indeed, the game is often to sabotage efforts to build such institutions and culture. This leads to an array of ills, including a winner-take-all attitude manifest in a lack of transparency and authoritarianism (or caudillismo), and a general neglect for creating wealth through development of other parts of the economy. In the case of Venezuela, Chávez arguably worsened some of these symptoms, but the disease predates him by many decades.

      • Eric

         /  March 7, 2013

        Eric, March 7, 2013

        Just to add some reflections from the comparative political economy literature: Rulers of rentier states have at their disposal vast resources, to which they expect to have easy access for a very long time, which they can deploy generously in the form of handouts to garner social support, bribes and the like to purchase bureaucratic compliance, and cooptive payments to antagonists. Allocated to these ends, and believed to be inexhaustible, these windfalls are rarely invested in diversifying economies where leaders are content to rely on a very narrow extractive base.

        The standard work on the political implications for Venezuela is Terry Lynn Karl’s classic article “Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in Venezuela.” Latin American Research Review. Vol. 22, No. 1 (1987), pp. 63-94. Notably, that work focuses on a period when Chavez was a mid-level military unknown to anyone. Oil greased the system long before he made it onto the scene. More recently, writing about Venezuela and neighboring countries in the ALBA, political scientist Kurt Weyland posits that “The unearned windfalls produced by bonanzas inspire risk-acceptance among political leaders and common citizens, which can prompt ideological radicalism and political confrontation.” Weyland, too, documents lower levels of investment in diversifying the economy than would be the case absent the disproportionate presence of this resource. See his “The Rise of Latin America’s Two Lefts: Insights from Rentier State Theory .” Comparative Politics, Volume 41, Number 2, January 2009 , pp. 145-164(20).

        Doug Ross, writing in the premier journal World Politics, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy,” (Vol. 53 (April 2001), pp. 325–61, presents a large scale statistical analysis of economies and political systems in several world regions, including Latin America. His findings include: “First, the oil-impedes-democracy claim is both valid and statistically robust; in other words, oil does hurt democracy. Moreover, oil does greater damage to democracy in poor states than in rich ones, and a given rise in oil exports will do more harm in oil-poor states than in oil-rich ones. …. The fourth finding is that there is at least tentative support for three causal mechanisms that link oil and authoritarianism: a rentier effect, through which governments use low tax rates and high spending to dampen pressures for democracy; a repression effect, by which governments build up their internal security forces to ward off democratic pressures; and a modernization effect, in which the failure of the population to move into industrial and service sector jobs renders them less likely to push for democracy.” Low growth he adds, “may make domestic unrest tougher to resolve.”

  3. Miguel Carter

     /  March 7, 2013

    I noticed the same stark contrast. The lack of empathy towards the multitude of people in Latin America who are grieving Chavez’s death reveals the stark chasm between US policymakers and a significant segment of Latin American society, and makes the promise of “developing a constructive relationship” far more difficult to attain.

  4. Hope Bastian Martinez

     /  March 8, 2013

    When I saw the title of this blog posting in my email I was immediately offended and visited the blog right away with the hopes that I was misunderstanding what the writer meant. What the title seemed to be saying was just as offensive and out of touch with Latin America as Obama’s message of “condolence”. As I read further it quickly became clear that the message was indeed as undiplomatic as it appeared at first glance: “Venezuela: A New Start” as the title of an article in response to the passing of Chavez is the equivalent of a celebratory “Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead!” This was indeed, it seems, the message the writers meant to convey, the same message sent loud and clear by President Obama.

    As a response to the death of a head of state much respected throughout the region both Obama’s and this article’s messages are completely lacking. First, at the most basic human level a man has passed and anyone who has ever felt the pain of losing someone knows what that means. These are not moments for celebration. Other words are in order, words much more human than “duly noted”. This message shows not even the most basic respect for a man, as a human being, who is no longer with us and those who loved him. Second, it ignores the pain and suffering that millions are experiencing in this very moment in Venezuela, and across Latin America as a region who have lost a man who has achieved amazing changes for the poor majority of Venezuela, as Former President Carter mentions in his statement. To write as you do that Chavez’s death has been “duly noted” and now Venezuela can “get serious about becoming something better” ignores the reality that for millions of Venezuelans, Chavez’s government HAS represented “something better”. Millions more throughout Latin America also see it this way.

    While Chavez was not perfect and the country still has many problems to be solved, a response to his death which is little more than an opportunity to promote the same US agenda behind the 2002 coup is a slap in the face to the millions of Venezuelans and Latin Americans mourning him today and shows the US, once again, positioning itself AGAINST the rest of the region by refusing to recognize what Chavez has meant and will continue to mean in the South.

    While in Latin America (I am in Cuba now, watching local news and Telesur, and listening to the opinions of friends and neighbors) many fear that Chavez’s death could be “the end of an era” I hear people say that Chavez will live on and repeating a quote from Jose Marti to the effect of “great men never die”. Chavez was the head of state but also the head of a movement and, barring further US meddling, in collaboration with Venezuelan elites, that movement is still very much alive.


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