ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession

By Eric Hershberg

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is proof that being anointed successor by one’s patron on their deathbed isn’t adequate preparation for governing effectively or consolidating a revolutionary legacy.  Although being Hugo Chávez’s man got him into office, it obviously hasn’t been enough for Maduro to stem growing economic, political, and crime problems.  One element behind these protests is a widespread perception – including among some supporters of chavismo – that Maduro is a pale reflection of his benefactor and not up to the task of leading Venezuela.  Chávez hand-picked him in a hasty and half-hearted manner, and he didn’t bequeath to him a coherent set of policies, practices, or institutions that could ensure the continued advance of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Maduro inherited a state that was so weak institutionally and so dependent on Chávez personally that the jury remains out as to whether he has the capacity to keep all the pieces of Chávez’s legacy intact.

The Venezuelan president’s rocky road reflects the difficulty of the renovation of political leadership across ALBA nations.  Rather than nurture successors capable of carrying forward the transformations begun by founding leaders, one president after another has followed Chávez’s lead in dealing with the future by focusing primarily on extending their terms of office.  This past January Nicaragua’s national assembly cleared the way for Daniel Ortega, president since 2007, to run for a third term in 2016.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa likewise won a third consecutive term in 2013.  Last May Bolivia passed a law allowing Evo Morales to run for an unprecedented third term in 2014.  In none of these cases has the leadership sought to build the credentials of potential successors in the presidency, in stark contrast to what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did with Dilma Rousseff or what Ricardo Lagos did with Michelle Bachelet.  This phenomenon is not unique to left-leaning governments – Alvaro Uribe and Alberto Fujimori, for instance, suffered similar temptations –, but it seems endemic to the ALBA governments and is particularly troubling to the extent that these are instances where the leadership aims to effect wholesale, lasting societal transformations through its enduring control over the state apparatus.

There is a distinctive sort of hyper-presidentialism emerging throughout the ALBA nations.  Chávez, Correa, Morales, and Ortega’s concentration of power in their own personas makes it particularly hard for future leaders to emerge.  Their political projects embody aspirations for fundamental societal transformations.  In that sense, they can reasonably be categorized as what the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci would label as historic projects, and even revolutionary ones.  But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run.  Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on.  This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on.  The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency.  Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step.  Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.  While their frequent successes in displacing traditional elites and thwarting well-financed oppositions are impressive, it is striking that they fail to build political institutions and leaderships capable of carrying on their own visions and political projects after they pass.  The ALBA presidents may calculate that dismantling the ancien regime is legacy enough, but history may judge them harshly for delaying the emergence of more effective and enduring institutions, and of leaders who can push their projects forward for many administrations to come.

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