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Unity and Succession


Things happened quickly after the death of Chávez. The vice president, Nicolás Maduro, was sworn into office as acting president. The National Electoral Council called a new election on 14 April, within the required 30 days. A week later, Maduro registered as the presidential candidate of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV); Henrique Capriles registered reluctantly as candidate of the opposition coalition, Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

A big question is whether the Bolivarian movement, as the coalition that supports the government, will maintain unity now its main leader is gone. Last December, while Chávez was recovering from his fourth cancer operation in Cuba, analysts from the opposition and media outlets began circulating rumours that there were internal fights, primarily between Maduro, then vice president, and National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello.

Venezuelans easily believed these rumours, since Chávez has so far been the only leader able to unify the left. But Cabello and Maduro vehemently denied any rift, with Maduro saying they were brothers because they were both “sons of Chávez”. If their unity is so strong, why do so many believe the Bolivarian movement is fragmenting? The rumours had spread easily because Chávez’s charisma was instrumental to winning the presidency and maintaining the cohesion of the movement he founded over 15 years ago. Maduro doesn’t share that charisma, or the same degree of affection. But it would be a mistake to believe that the movement is based only on Chávez’s charisma.

In the “Fourth Republic” between 1958 and 1988, when the social democrats and Christian democrats alternated in governing the country, they had a great degree of internal cohesion, without any particular charisma. Most analysts think they maintained cohesion through iron party discipline, and because anyone who participated in or was affiliated with a party, including the mainstream labour movement, the Church, big business and the major mass media (all in opposition now), had hopes of benefitting from oil revenues, while everybody else was left to fend for themselves.

The patronage system, based on oil revenues, which had enriched the Venezuelan elites while everyone else grew poorer, collapsed. Neoliberal economic policies merely accelerated the collapse.

Unifying a fractious left

When Chávez ran for office in 1998, he managed to unify the fractious left; this, together with his promise to revolutionise society and his rhetorical ability, won him the presidency. During his 14 years in office, he deepened his support base among the marginalised by giving them a larger say in running their communities and workplaces, and redistributing increasing oil revenues to them.

Nationalisation of key industries, turning many state-owned enterprises over to worker co-management, land reform and the introduction of communal councils and social programmes to benefit the poor, all solidified his support among the previously excluded. Loyalty to Chávez and his government went far beyond his charisma.

The argument that Chávez built up a new patronage system is undermined by the generally universal nature of his approach, and its wide acceptance. It is unsurprising that opinion polls reflected Venezuelans’ high degree of satisfaction with democracy (1), or even that they were the happiest people of South America (2) — though this may have been overstatement, given the serious crime problem that the government failed adequately to address.

As a result of the beneficial effect of oil revenues, those sectors that support the government, such as the left (left of the moderate social democrats) and the poor, were far more united than those in opposition. While the opposition fragmented because of internal battles, organisations that support the government showed no dissension, despite Chávez’s extended absences.

But who is in control of the government now? We know that Maduro (a former union leader, National Assembly president and foreign minister) is Chávez’s designated successor. But what interest groups do his presidency represent, and with which would he have to negotiate?

More than other countries of Latin America, Venezuela’s political landscape is inherently fragmented. Interest groups historically never developed much independence from the state, which meant that they remained relatively small and weak compared with the governing political parties. Oil-dependence meant the state increased its hold on interest groups.

Three key groups

The key sectors that support the government are divided into civilian, military and business. The first, the “social movement”, represented within the government by Maduro and former vice-president Elias Jaua, is subdivided into labour and community groups, and other groups representing smaller sectors, such as small farmers, the indigenous peoples and pro-Chávez students. The military sector, whose main representative is Diosdado Cabello, is sub-divided into moderates (led by Cabello) and the more radical left (led by Ramón Rodríguez Chacín).

The business sector is sub-divided into the oil industry, led by state oil company (PDVSA) president Rafael Ramírez, the small industrial sector, headed by Fedeindustria chamber of commerce president Miguel Pérez Abad, and individual beneficiaries of state contracts with big business. (The largest chamber of commerce, Fedecámaras, fully supports the opposition.)

Chávez was a master at maintaining the loyalty of all of these groups, because he kept his promises to them, by redistributing oil revenues, increasing participation in political life and giving retired military officials a key role in running important parts of the administration. Maduro would probably do the same should he become president. But given that his main ties are to the labour movement, he would also have to rely on government representatives (particularly Jaua, Cabello, and Ramírez) so as to keep the other sectors within the governing coalition. While Chávez made most decisions with relatively little internal debate, Maduro will have to put up with far more debate and internal give-and-take.

A change of direction?

Given how much is at stake, the key figures of the Chávista movement are unlikely to wrangle as long as Chávez’s designated successor is at the head of the movement and the government. However, if Maduro were to lose the presidency in an election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the Bolivarian coalition would begin to fragment, just as the opposition has.

Will there be a change of political direction? Many observers think Maduro could be closer to the social movement than Chávez was, but that is far from sure. Although Chávez relied on the military, especially for high state positions, he often sided with popular organisations in key policy debates. Maduro also knows there is a lack of qualified leftist administrators and that he needs to rely on military figures to run the government.

Something else holds the governing coalition together: the US. Most government officials, especially those with a history of activism within the left, are convinced the US would do almost anything — including armed intervention — to overthrow another Chávez-style government. As long as Bolivarian officials and supporters believe this threat to be real, they will not risk internal divisions and weakness.

But even though Chávez in his last public appearance exhorted his followers to maintain “unity, unity, unity”, he was clear that his political project was far from complete, and looked to his followers to carry on the work. As the sociologist Javier Biardeau wrote on his blog, “the political drama of Chávez is the self-critical recognition of the possibility of losing the direction of a revolutionary government” (3). Chávez said in one of his last major speeches, after his October 2012 re-election: “I believe that we have a new legal architecture … beginning with the constitution [of 1999]. We have laws on the communal councils, laws on communes, on the communal economy, the laws on the district motors of development; but we do not pay attention to any of these laws — we, who are primarily responsible for their fulfilment.”

But is this vision of creating a participatory, democratic, 21st-century socialism what the Bolivarian movement — the coalition of long-time leftists, community activists, progressive military officers and business interests — intend to pursue now? The answer depends on whether these factions manage to balance each other’s interests as Chávez was always able to do.

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