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Chávez: The Legacy and the Challenges


Originally posted at Carta Maior, translated by North Star — The most charismatic political leader in decades has died. In a democracy, charismatic leadership creates a political relation between rulers and ruled that is particularly mobilizing, because it combines democratic legitimacy with an identity of belonging and a set of shared objectives that go far beyond political representation. The popular classes, which are used to being beaten down by a faraway and repressive power (a power that low-intensity democracies foment), live through moments in which the distance between representatives and the represented almost disappears.

The opposition speaks of populism and authoritarianism, but it rarely succeeds in convincing voters. That is, in democracy, charisma allows levels of civic education that are difficult to reach in other conditions. The complex chemistry between charisma and democracy deepens both processes, above all when it is translated into measures of redistributing social wealth. The problem with charisma is that it ends with the leader. To continue without him, democracy needs to be reinforced with ingredients whose chemistry is equally complex, above all in the immediate post-charismatic period: institutionality and popular participation.

Crying out  “We are all Chávez!” in the streets of Caracas, the people are lucidly conscious that Chávez was one man and that the Bolivarian Revolution will have enemies, internal and external, strong enough to put in question the intense democratic experience  of the last 14 years. In Brazil, President Lula was also a charismatic leader. After him, President Dilma Rousseff took advantage of the strong institutionality of the state and Brazilian democracy, but she has had difficulty complementing it with popular participation. In Venezuela, the strength of institutions is much weaker, while the impulse of popular participation is much greater. In this context, we should analyze Chávez’s legacy and the difficulties on the horizon.

The Legacy

Redistribution of wealth. Chávez, like other Latin American leaders, took advantage of the boom in natural resources (especially petroleum) to achieve an unprecedented program of social policies, especially in the areas of education, health, housing, and infrastructure, that substantially improved the lives of the immense majority of the population. Saudi Venezuela gave way to Bolivarian Venezuela.

Regional integration. Chávez was a tireless architect of regional integration. This was not merely a calculation of survival or hegemony. Chávez believed like no one else in Simón Bolívar’s idea of the Patria Grande. He viewed the substantive political differences among the countries of the region as discussions within a great family. When he had the chance, he made sure to reestablish links with the most reticent and pro-U.S. member of the family, Colombia. He made sure that relations among the Latin American countries went far beyond trade and that they were patterned on a logic of complementarity and reciprocity, not on a capitalist logic. His solidarity with Cuba is well known, but it was equally decisive with Argentina during the crisis of 2001–02 and with the small countries of the Caribbean.

He was an enthusiast of all forms of integration that helped the continent quit its role as the “backyard” of the United States. He led the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), later known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA-TCP); he also wanted to be a member of Mercosur. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) are other integrationist institutions that Chávez gave impulse to.

Anti-imperialism. In the most critical moments of his government (including the resistance to the coup d’état that he was a victim of in 2002), Chávez was confronted with the most aggressive U.S. unilateralism (George W. Bush), which arrived at its most destructive point with the invasion of Iraq. Chávez had the conviction that what was happening in the Middle East would happen one day in Latin America if the region did not prepare for that eventuality. Hence his interest in regional integration. But he was also convinced that the only way to confront the United States was to nurture multilateralism, strengthening what remained of it from the Cold War. Hence his approaching Russia, China, and Iran. He knew that the United States, with the support of the European Union, would continue “liberating” all those countries that could challenge Israel or pose a threat to the access to petroleum. Thus the “liberation” of Libya, followed by that of Syria, and in the near future, Iran. Hence also the United States and European Union’s lack of interest in “liberating” the country governed by the most retrograde dictatorship, Saudi Arabia.

Socialism of the 21st century. Chávez did not manage to construct 21st-century socialism, which he called Bolivarian socialism. What was his model of socialism, taking into account that he always showed a reverence for the Cuban experience, which many consider excessive? It consoles me to know that on several occasions, Chávez referred with approval to my definition of socialism: “Socialism is unlimited democracy.” Of course, these were speeches, and in practice it would undoubtedly be more difficult and complex. He wanted Bolivarian socialism to be peaceful but armed so that what happened to Salvador Allende would not happen to him. He nationalized businesses, which raised the ire of foreign investors, who took revenge with an impressive demonization campaign against him in Europe (especially in Spain), as well as in the United States. He broke up the capitalism that existed but did not replace it. Hence the crisis of supply shortages and investment, inflation and growing dependence on oil revenues. He polarized the class struggle and put the old and new capitalist classes on alert, classes that for a long time had an almost total monopoly over the media and always maintained control over finance capital. The polarization came to the street, and many felt that the great increase in crime resulted from it (would they say the same of the increase in crime in Sao Paulo or Johannesburg?).

The communal state. Chávez knew that the state machine built by the oligarchies, which had always dominated the country, would do everything possible to block the new revolutionary process that, in contrast to previous ones, was born in and nurtured by democracy. For that reason, he sought to build parallel structures. The first of these were the missions, a wide-ranging program of public policies in different sectors, each one with a suggestive name (for example, the Misión Barrio Adentro [Inside the Neighborhood Mission], to offer health services to the popular classes), with popular participation and aid from Cuba. After the institutionalization of popular power, a territorial system parallel to the existing one (states and municipalities), with the comuna [municipal division] as the basic cell, social property as a principle, and the construction of socialism as the principal objective. In contrast to other Latin American experiences that attempted to link representative democracy with participatory democracy (the case of participatory budgeting and popular sectoral councils), the communal state assumed a relationship of confrontation between these two forms of democracy. Perhaps this was its great weakness.

The Challenges

The civic-military union. Chávez assumed power upon two bases: the democratic adhesion of the popular classes and the political union between the civil power and the armed forces. This union has always been problematic on the continent and, when it existed, almost always had a conservative character and even a dictatorial one. Chávez, himself a military man, achieved a union with a progressive meaning that gave the regime stability. But to do this he had to give economic power to the military, which, as well as being a source of corruption, could tomorrow turn against the Bolivarian Revolution or, which is the same, subvert its transformative and democratic spirit.

Extractivism. The Bolivarian Revolution deepened Venezuela’s dependency on petroleum and natural resources in general, a phenomenon that, far from being specific to Venezuela, is today present in other countries administered by governments considered progressive, such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Excessive dependence on natural resources prevents the economy’s diversification, destroys the environment, and, above all, constitutes a constant aggression against indigenous and campesino populations in whose territories these resources are found, contaminating their water, ignoring their ancestral rights, violating international law (which demands that such populations be consulted), expelling them from their lands, killing their communitarian leaders. Just a day before Chávez died, Sabino Romero, a great indigenous leader of the Sierra de Perijá, Venezuela,whose struggle I have for years been in solidarity with, was slain. Will Chávez’s successors know how to confront this problem?

The political regime. Even if it is democratically elected, a political regime tailored to a charismatic leader tends to be a problem for successors. The challenges are enormous in the Venezuelan case. One on hand, the general weakness of institutions; on the other, a parallel institutionality, the communal state, dominated by the party created by Chávez, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). If the free-for-all of the party comes to power, it will be the end of the Bolivarian Revolution. The PSUV is an aggregation of different tendencies, and coexistence among them has been difficult.

With the unifying figure of Chávez now gone, ways of expressing internal diversity must be found. Only an intense exercise of internal democracy will allow the PSUV to be one of the national expressions of democratic deepening that will block the advance of the political forces interested in destroying, point by point, everything that the popular classes have conquered in recent years. If corruption is not controlled and internal differences are reprimanded with declarations that all are Chavistas and each is more chavista than the next, the path will be opened for the enemies of the revolution. One thing is certain: if the example of Chávez must be followed, it is crucial that critics not be reprimanded. The authoritarianism that has characterized large sectors of the Latin American left must be abandoned.

The great challenge for the continent’s progressive forces is knowing how to distinguish between Chávez’s polemicizing style, which was certainly controversial, and the substantive political sense of his government, which was unequivocally in favor of the popular classes and of Latin American integration. Conservative forces will do everything possible to confuse them. Chávez decisively contributed to the consolidation of democracy in the social imaginary. He consolidated it where it is most difficult to be betrayed: in the hearts of the popular classes. This is also where betrayal is most dangerous. Who can imagine the popular classes of any other country spilling bitter tears at the death of a democratic political leader, as Venezuelans have done on the TV screens of the world? This is a precious patrimony, as much for Venezuelans as for all Latin Americans. It would be a crime to squander it.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and the University of Wisconsin. Translated by The North Star. Se encuentra una versión en español aquí.

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