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On the Legacy of Hugo Chávez


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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>The press of course went into high dudgeon, and not just for the obvious reason that it’s one thing for opponents in the Middle East to call the United States the Great Satan and another thing for the president of a Latin American country to personally single out its president as Beelzebub, on US soil no less.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Awash in oil wealth, Venezuela throughout the twentieth century enjoyed its own kind of exceptionalism, avoiding the extremes of left-wing radicalism and homicidal right-wing anticommunism that overtook many of its neighbors. In a way, the country became the anti-Cuba. In 1958, political elites negotiated a pact that maintained the trappings of democratic rule for four decades, as two ideological indistinguishable parties traded the presidency back and forth (sound familiar?). Where the State Department and its allied policy intellectuals isolated and condemned Havana, they celebrated Caracas as the end point of development. Samuel Huntington praised Venezuela as an example of “successful democratization,” while another political scientist, writing in the early 1980s, said it represented the “only trail to a democratic future for developing societies…a textbook case of step-by-step progress.”

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Petroleum prices began to fall in the mid-1980s. By this point, Venezuela had grown lopsidedly urban, with 16 million of its 19 million citizens living in cities, well over half of them below the poverty line, many in extreme poverty. In Caracas, combustible concentrations of poor people lived cut off from municipal services—such as sanitation and safe drinking water—and hence party and patronage control. The spark came in February 1989, when a recently inaugurated president who had run against the IMF said that he no choice but to submit to its dictates. He announced a plan to abolish food and fuel subsidies, increase gas prices, privatize state industries and cut spending on health care and education.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Chávez emerged from the ruin, first with a failed putsch in 1992, which landed him in jail but turned him into a folk hero. Then in 1998, when he won 56 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate. Inaugurated in 1999, he took office committed to a broad yet vague anti-austerity program, a mild John Kenneth Galbraith–quoting reformer who at first had no power to reform anything. The esteem in which Chávez was held by the majority of Venezuelans, many of them dark-skinned, was matched by the rage he provoked among the country’s mostly white political and economic elites. But their maximalist program of opposition—a US-endorsed coup, an oil strike that destroyed the country’s economy, a recall election and an oligarch-media propaganda campaign that made Fox News seem like PBS—backfired. By 2005, Chávez had weathered the storm and was in control of the nation’s oil, allowing him to embark on an ambitious program of domestic and international transformation: massive social spending at home and “poly-polar equilibrium” abroad, a riff on what Bolívar once called “universal equilibrium,” an effort to break up the US’s historical monopoly of power in Latin America and force Washington to compete for influence.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Over the last fourteen years, Chávez has submitted himself and his agenda to fourteen national votes, winning thirteen of them by large margins, in polling deemed by Jimmy Carter to be “best in the world” out of the ninety-two elections that he has monitored. (It turns out it isn’t that difficult to have transparent elections: voters in Venezuela cast their ballot on an touch pad, which spits out a receipt they can check and then deposit in a box. At the end of the day, random polling stations are picked for ‘hot audits,’ to make sure the electronic and paper tallies add up). A case is made that this ballot-box proceduralism isn’t democratic, that Chávez dispenses patronage and dominates the media giving him an unfair advantage. But after the last presidential ballot—which Chávez won with the same percentage he did his first election yet with a greatly expanded electorate—even his opponents have admitted, despairingly, that a majority of Venezuelans liked, if not adored, the man.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>The other half of Chávez’s electoral majority is made up of organized citizens involved in one or the other of the country’s many grassroots organizations. Chávez’s social base was diverse and heterodox, what social scientists in the 1990s began to celebrate as “new social movements,” distinct from established trade unions and peasant organizations vertically linked to—and subordinated to—political parties or populist leaders: neighborhood councils; urban and rural homesteaders, feminists, gay and lesbian rights organizations, economic justice activists, environmental coalitions; breakaway unions and the like. It’s these organizations, in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout the region, that have over the last few decades done heroic work in democratizing society, in giving citizens venues to survive the extremes of neoliberalism and to fight against further depredations, turning Latin America into one of the last global bastion of the Enlightenment left.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>One anecdote alone should be enough to give the lie to the idea that poor Venezuelans voted for Chávez because they were fascinated by the baubles they dangled in front of them. During the 2006 presidential campaign, the signature pledge of Chávez’s opponent was to give 3,000,000 poor Venezuelans a black credit card (black as in the color of oil) from which they could withdraw up to $450 in cash a month, which would have drained over $16 billion dollars a year from the national treasury (call it neoliberal populism: give to the poor just enough to bankrupt the government and force the defunding of services). Over the years, there’s been a lot of heavy theoretically breathing by US academics about the miasma oil wealth creates in countries like Venezuela, lulling citizens into a dreamlike state that renders them into passive spectators. But in this election at least, Venezuelans managed to see through the mist. Chávez won with over 62 percent of the vote.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars such as Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists would criticize as a hyper dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, as well as an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>First, the military in Latin America is best known for its homicidal right-wing sadists, many of them trained by the United States, in places like the School of the Americas. But the region’s armed forces have occasionally thrown up anti-imperialists and economic nationalists. In this sense, Chávez is similar to Argentina’s Perón, as well as Guatemala’s Colonel Arbenz, Panama’s Omar Torrijos and Peru’s General Juan Francisco Velasco, who as president between 1968 and 1975 allied Lima with Moscow. But when they weren’t being either driven from office (Arbenz) or killed (Torrijos?), these military populists inevitably veered quickly to the right. Within a few years of his 1946 election, Perón was cracking down on unions, going as far as endorsing the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954. In Peru, the radical phase of Peru’s military government lasted seven years. Chávez, in contrast, was in office fourteen years, and he never turned nor repressed his base.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Oil wealth has much to do with this exceptionalism, as it also did in the elite, top-down democracy that existed prior to Chávez. But so what? Chávez has done what rational actors in the neoliberal interstate order are supposed to do: he’s leveraged Venezuela’s comparative advantage not just to fund social organizations but give them unprecedented freedom and power.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Once it had access to the money, it opted not to confront these pockets of corruption and power but simply fund parallel institutions, including the social missions that provided healthcare, education and other welfare services being the most famous. This was both a blessing and a curse, the source of Chavismo’s strength and weakness.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>For a good eight years they worked something like a Laurel and Hardy routine, with Chávez acting the buffoon and Lula the straight man. But each was dependent on the other and each was aware of this dependency. Chávez often stressed the importance of Lula’s election in late 2002, just a few months after April’s failed coup attempt, which gave him his first real ally of consequence in a region then still dominated by neoliberals. Likewise, the confrontational Chávez made Lula’s reformism that much more palatable. Wikileak documents reveal the skill in which Lula’s diplomats gently but firmly rebuffed the Bush administration’s pressure to isolate Venezuela.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Also present was a friend and activist who works on the issue of debt relief for poor countries. At the time, a proposal to relieve the debt owed to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) by the poorest countries in the Americas had stalled, largely because mid-level bureaucrats from Argentina, Mexico and Brazil opposed the initiative. My friend lobbied Chávez to speak to Lula and Argentina’s president Néstor Kirchner, another of the region’s leftist leaders, and get them to jump-start the deal.

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mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>We later got word that Chávez had successfully lobbied Lula and Kirchner to support the deal. In November 2006, the IADB announced it would write off billions of dollars in debt to Nicaragua, Guyana, Honduras and Bolivia (Haiti would later be added to the list).

And so it was that the man routinely compared in the United States to Stalin quietly joined forces with the administration of the man he had just called Satan, helping to make the lives of some of the poorest people in America just a bit more bearable.

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