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.