Great Debate: Will Chavismo Live On Without Hugo Chavez?

Leonardo Vivas, Diana Negroponte, Carlos Blanco, and others weigh in.


The Great Debate

This is the eleventh post in the TMP series“The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors, and students on pressing questions in international affairs.

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez was not returned from his cancer treatment in Cuba in time to be sworn in for his new term. He has had four major surgeries in the last two years, and although significant details about his illness have been kept secret, there are rumors that he might not be able to continue governing.

In his years as president, Chávez has become an icon of Latin America’s radical left. During the Bush era, a handful of South and Central American countries followed his revolutionary path and adopted his anti-capitalist and anti-US attitudes. However, while nations such as Brazil and Chile have experienced a more stable growth and progress, oil-rich Venezuela has gone through great political, social and economic turmoil.

After nearly 14 years in power, President Chávez won re-election last October. Although he received 54% of the vote, there was a more significant opposition vote (45%) than in past elections. Venezuela’s constitution says that a new election must be held within 30 days if a president is declared to be in “absolute absence.” Based on its own interpretation the Venezuelan Supreme Court has allowed Chávez’s inauguration to be postponed until the president returns, but opposition parties are putting pressure to hold new elections.

To shed light on this, TMP’s “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

“Will Chavismo Live On Without Hugo Chavez?”




BastenierMiguel Ángel Bastenier, El País

As it happened with Gaulismo and Peronismo, Chavismo will live on at least as the political alibi of quite a few people interested in reaping benefits from its existence. Even if its contents turn into a mishmash of half cooked ill conceived platitudes -what quite a few people would say it has already- it will live on for two very precise reasons. It is a church with very many followers, and one Saint-Patron who encompasses everything a religious belief may need, and a commercial concern. Many thousands of Venezuelans owe their livelihood to the existence of such a creed, and nothing is stronger than material needs to keep people together.

But this Chavismo without its founder will decrease in due time in popular appeal. If the Maduro Administration, whom I do not doubt will win the presidential election, keeps the basic tenets of a democratic regime, in the best (or worst) possible case, Chavismo will remain a party which one day will have to fight at the polls for office, as everyone else.

Miguel Ángel Bastenier is a columnist and editor at El Pais, Madrid, Spain, and professor at Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, Cartagena, Colombia.  He has been honored by Columbia University with the Maria Moors Cabot Prize.


NegroponteDiana Villiers Negroponte, Brookings Institution

Chavismo will outlast President Hugo Chávez. Chavez remains disconnected physically from the Venezuelan people, but his philosophy and his persona live on amongst his followers. What is chavismo?  Hugo Chávez created Bolivarian Socialism to describe a state-centered distribution of assets for the benefit of the poorest in Venezuela cloaked in a nationalist spirit.  Nationalism identifies external threats to Bolivarian socialism, primarily the U.S. government and calls upon citizens to remain united in defense against the United States.

There are four distinct elements to Bolivarian socialism:  (1) recollection of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general who led the independence fight against the Spanish in the early 19th century and the person whom Chavez seeks to emulate;  (2) concentrated power in the presidency and executive branch of government resulting in a dependent  supreme court and legislature;  (3) the use of national resources – principally oil –  to advance national interests as defined by the president not the market; finally, (4) the working class and poor must be the beneficiaries of this distribution.  Political scientists find these elements within the concept, ‘nationalist socialism.’

Why will it survive?   Chávez has not created institutions to carry on his legacy, but he has gathered together an extensive collection of colleagues who have shared in the benefits of Chavista power.  Many of them enriched themselves through corruption and constructing new businesses, including narcotics trafficking.  They have a vital interest in maintaining Bolivarian Socialism and their position within the regime.

Political opposition will not threaten Chavismo effectively in the presidential elections that must be held within 30 days after Chávez is declared incapacitated. That election campaign will tilt strongly toward Chavismo, once again using the media and offering state resources.  Only when the Venezuelan economy hurts his followers through prolonged shortages and high inflation will disenchantment set in.  Then the Venezuelan people will recognize that Chávez’ successors lack his charisma and persuasive powers.  They will look for alternatives.  That could occur in the legislative elections scheduled for 2016, unless unconstitutional changes of power take place beforehand.

Diana Villiers Negroponte is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is author of “Conflict Resolution at the End of the Cold War: The Struggle to Make Peace in El Salvador” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and her upcoming book “The End of Nostalgia: Mexico Confronts the Challenges of Global Competition” will be published in March 2013.


Carlos BlancoCarlos Blanco, Boston University

Chavismo can survive the absence of Chávez, but to do so it must undergo major changes. As a presidential candidate and thereafter as President, Chávez managed to bring together two sectors: the radical left, militants from political and social groups, activists in barrios and trade-unions; and the Armed Forces, who are nationalist, center-right. He created a strong leadership and became the “cement” of this social and political alliance.

Since Chavez disappeared from the stage, in the background, there has been a silent power struggle between the two factions of Chavismo. One is represented by the Vice President Nicolás Maduro of the pro-Cuban left, and the other is by the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who like many in the military opposes to the Cuban interference in Venezuela. If Chavez dies or resigns as President, a new presidential election must occur within 30 days, according to the Constitution. It is almost certain that the candidate will be Nicolás Maduro, but if he wins he will not have the same power that Chávez had. And, if he’s elected he must nonetheless come to an understanding with the military sector of Diosdado Cabello.

At the moment there is a competition between the factions of Chavismo to take leadership and to look more radical in rhetorical terms.  A new government without Chávez will have two options: appeal to radicalism and repression or be moderate and reach an understanding with currently-excluded sectors of society. This enigma will be solved very soon.

Carlos Blanco is a visiting scholar at the International Relations Department of Boston University and a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He also served as Minister for Reform of the State and President of the Presidential Commission for State Reform in Venezuela. He currently works as a consultant on Latin American themes (governance, decentralization, institutional building, etc.)


LeonardoVivasLeonardo Vivas, Harvard University

Chavismo will certainly outlive its creator and main inspiration. Most analysts attribute this resilience to a thick checkbook. To a certain degree this is true: during the Chavez era Venezuela enjoyed the longest oil boom in its history, and there is no reason to believe it will end. Others point to the internal governance agreement reached by the different internal factions sanctified by Chavez himself and by the Cuban clique.

There is yet another aspect: the ideology nurturing the long Chavista domination of Venezuelan politics. The battle of ideas has been a key ingredient of the Bolivarian revolution at every stage, from its very inception, to the internal exercise of power, as well as in advancing an ambitious international policy. The battle of ideas has also been crucial in masking the Chávez movement’s authoritarian impulses behind a democratic veil. During the process leading to the abrogation of the 1999 constitution, the semantics of Venezuela’s democracy changed dramatically.  Sovereignty and the sovereign people became the new name of the game and Hugo Chávez its main vehicle. But political will and sovereignty still occurred through universal suffrage. That is why elections have become a plebiscitary practice always revolving around Hugo Chávez.

Ironically, the same regime claiming to have recovered sovereignty is the one abdicating it today to a minor Caribbean powerhouse. The caudillo’s illness has been managed in order to provide an avenue for the endurance of the Bolivarian Revolution. But in the process Cuba has engineered for itself a huge amount of influence on powerful and rich Venezuela.

Leonardo Vivas (@LeovivasP) is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In Venezuela he was Director of Industry in the Development Ministry and founder of several nonprofit organizations. He has published two books about Venezuela’s political crises.


Juan Cristobal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel, Caracas Chronicles

The chances of chavismo outliving Chávez will depend on the economy, and how Venezuelans perceive its evolution.

The Chávez economic model is very simple: have under your feet large quantities of something the world desperately needs and is willing to pay a high price for; sell it; borrow some more; and then spend it all.

In the last few years, this model has paid dividends for Chávez: as the price of oil has grown, so has the President’s chutzpah. Chávez can afford to expropriate private companies, give away gasoline for free, increase the government’s payroll, and subsidize virtually everything that is sold.

But the day of reckoning is coming because this model is simply unsustainable. Productivity, the main driver of long-term economic growth, has suffered under Chávez’s mismanagement. His policies deter investment, innovation, and technology adoption in favor of easy consumption.

Because of the opacity in the government’s accounts, it is virtually impossible to determine how much time remains before reality sinks in. When that happens, it is also an open question as to who will be blamed for the looming disaster.

Luckily for Chávez’s legacy, he is dying before he has to clean up his own mess. If chavismo succeeds Chávez, it will need ever-growing oil prices to sustain its myth, so its survival will be in peril. If the opposition manages a win, they will surely be blamed for the coming adjustment.

Paradoxically, chavismo has a better shot of surviving if it stays out of power.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel (@juannagel) is a professor of economics at Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile and is co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, an English-language blog on Venezuelan politics.


VelascoAlejandro Velasco, New York University

In the near term, yes.  The opposition performed well in the October presidential race, but it did so largely by promising to bolster, not erode, many of the social programs that define Chavismo. Moreover, major losses during regional elections in December took much of the wind out of the opposition’s sails; instead it was Chávez’s PSUV party that emerged strengthened.  And while some foretell a fiscal crisis, such predictions have proven alarmist in the past. Certainly Venezuela depends on imports and its currency is overvalued, but that’s a hallmark of a petro-state.  Oil prices remain high, with few signs of abating, while Venezuela has no shortage of credit sources. Internationally, too, there is little to indicate any hardening towards Venezuela; instead signs of rapprochement with the US have surfaced. All told, in the near term, it is status quo for Venezuela.

The long term is where prospects for Chavismo without Chávez turn complicated. Some have focused on tensions between the “military” and the “civilian” wings of the Chavista leadership.  Largely absent in this discussion are social movements and popular sectors that have helped account for Chavismo’s durability.  Among these, degrees of ideological commitment to a socialist project that does away with a formal state in favor of what Chávez has called a “communal state” vary wildly. But they are generally stronger than among Chavista leaders for whom a Communal State means erosion of power.  To date, Chávez has been the one to pull at-times-reluctant lieutenants towards greater radicalization of a project that entrusts more and more resources and administration to organized popular sectors. Without him providing that impetus, it remains unclear at best, doubtful at worst, that Chavista leaders will deepen those efforts.  And should they ebb, no doubt a clash between social movements and a hesitant leadership will follow.

Alejandro Velasco is assistant professor of Latin American history in the Gallatin School at New York University. His most recent publications are “‘A Weapon as Powerful as the Vote’: Urban Protest and Electoral Politics in Venezuela, 1978-8193” (Hispanic American Historical Review, November 2010) and “‘We Are Still Rebels’: The Challenge of Popular History in Bolivarian Venezuela” (Dan Hellinger and David Smilde, eds., Participation, Politics, and Culture in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy, Duke 2011).


EdgertonAnna Edgerton, Bloomberg News

Chavismo was on shaky ground long before Hugo Chávez got sick.  At one time, his revolutionary rhetoric and Venezuela’s generous oil money helped parts of Latin America shake off the political and economic influence of the United States. But now with a less present “Yankee empire” and alternative regional examples of success, Chavismo has become less of a model and more of a political liability.

Leaders now fashion themselves after former Brazilian president Lula, who expanded social programs to lift millions out of poverty and create a domestic consumer class. Lawmakers take note of Chile’s efforts to be a center for innovation and free trade. Uruguay is subtly rejecting the U.S.-led war on drugs by legalizing marijuana. These trends are not born out of harsh rhetoric and confrontation, but rather a calculated assessment of what each country needs to consolidate democracy and begin to address inequality.

In January, presidents Ollanta Humala of Peru and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina visited Cuba, where Chávez is receiving medical care. Humalla, while personally supporting Chávez, has distanced himself from the comandante’s politics and followed a more Lula-esque development. Peru’s economy is expected to grow at 5.7 percent in 2013 with decreasing public debt and a healthy 2.25 percent inflation.

Argentina, on the other hand, is finding itself increasingly isolated as Kirchner borrows from the Chavismo playbook by restricting the freedom of the press, nationalizing companies and demonizing international organizations. In 2012, independent analysts calculated inflation to be more than twice the government-reported 10.8 percent. Kirchner is tinkering with election law, and Argentine assets abroad have been seized by disgruntled creditors.

As part of the legacy of Chavismo, post- Chávez Venezuela will have to grapple with a dire housing crisis, a shortage of consumer goods, the continent’s highest inflation and a terrifying murder rate.

Post- Chávez Latin America, for the most part, has already moved on.

Anna Edgerton (@AnnaEdge4) is a breaking news reporter for Bloomberg News, currently in Miami, moving to Brasilia this spring. She worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald after finishing a dual masters degree at SIPA and Columbia Journalism School.


This post was compiled by Rachael Levy, Valle Aviles Pinedo, Krisztian Simon, and Ariel Stulberg.


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