President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is dead. What will happen now? What is his legacy for Venezuela?
To think about it, we must recognize that at its core, there was a fundamental contradiction about Chavismo, the project of Hugo Chavez.
On the one hand, his project was a reaction by the mass of Venezuelan society against the elites that have held a stranglehold on the institutions and the economy of the country since independence — or in fact since even before independence. But on the other hand, his battle against the elites also enabled him to create his own dictatorship that was potentially even more damaging to Venezuela’s economy, and in the process, undermined the possibility of creating new and more inclusive institutions.
The roots of the rise to power of Hugo Chávez after 1999 are easy to understand. First and foremost, they lie in a pre-existing oligarchic party system, the ‘punto fijo system’, named after the pact of 1958 between the two major parties, AD (Acción Democrática) and COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente) to share and rotate power. Underpinning the power of the elites of the political parties, and being supported by them, was a group of economic elites known as the ‘twelve apostles’. These created a Venezuelan oligarchy, often referred to as a ‘partidocracia’.
Second, these problems were exacerbated by a specific type of ‘political betrayal’ — an experience of new forces coming to power promising alternative platforms and then changing their mind and allying themselves with the traditional elites once in power. In Venezuela this process was manifested in the presidency of Carlos Andrés Perez who implemented free market reforms after being elected on a completely different platform. In 1992 he faced a military coup masterminded by Chávez and a group of military officers under the banner of the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200. Though the coup failed, the officers were released from prison in 1994 by Perez’s successor Rafael Caldera.
Chávez was first elected president in 1998 in large part as a reaction to a political system that was quite clearly captured and also appeared unable to reform itself. In desperation they were attracted to something radical. After his election, Chávez focused on the process of getting the constitution re-written.
The changes he implemented included the dismantling of checks and balances, such as moving from a bi-cameral to a unicameral legislature, a movement away from the use of super-majorities so that, for example, future constitutional changes could be approved by a simple majority of the legislature. Also significant was the fact that the legislature could grant by a majority almost unlimited decree powers to the president, a feature which has seen heavy use. In 2000, President Chávez obtained the right to rule by decree for a year without having to get the approval of the legislature. In 2007, this power was renewed and extended to 18 months. It was renewed again in December 2010 for another 18 months. In 2004, the National Assembly passed a law expanding the size of the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members and making it possible to ratify the appointment of new judges with a simple majority. 5 justices resigned in protest, allowing Chávez to nominate 17 new justices.
How did Chávez defend such changes? As he himself put it, the problem was:
how to break with the past, how to overcome this type of democracy that only responds to the interests of the oligarchical sectors; how to get rid of the corruption.
His arguments were persuasive because as the Venezuelan sociologist Fernando Coronil has argued ordinary people viewed elites as:
a corrupt cogollo (big wigs) that had privatized the state, looted the nation’s wealth and abused the people … The people have been betrayed by their leaders and democracy has become a façade behind which an elite had used the state for its own advantage.
This type of rhetoric and motivation is very common in the recent leftist regimes of Latin America. For example, upon assuming the presidency of Ecuador for the first time Rafael Correa noted:
Let’s not be naïve … We won the elections, but not power. Power is controlled by economic interests, the banks, the partidocracia, and the media connected to the banks.
The word ‘partidocracia’ is exactly the same one used in Venezuela. On February 28, 2007 Correa made a significant speech while proposing the holding of a referendum to have a constitutional assembly. He began the speech:
We said we were going to transform the fatherland in the citizen’s revolution, democratic, constitutional … but revolutionary, without getting entangled in the old structures, without falling into the hands of those with the traditional power, without accepting that the fatherland has particular owners. The fatherland is for everyone without lies with absolute transparency”.
So Chávez, like Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, gained support because his proposed political platform stroke a chord with the average voter. These politicians’ diagnosis of the problems on Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia is that the economic ills their countries face stem from the fact that society has been captured by an elite.
How to change this situation? They argued that measures needed to be taken to break the grip on power of elites. The approach of Chávez, and of Correa and Morales, is to strengthen the president and the removal of checks and balances which in the past have been tools for the elites to block reformist agendas, for example that of Carlos Andrés Perez. It is almost as if one needs “fire to fight fire”: institutions have been captured by elites, so we need to break down these institutions in order to build a different society.
Yet paradoxically this call for a different society has not led to different institutions being built in Venezuela because Chávez’s personal power and influence are so tied to the de-institutionalization and personalization of Venezuelan politics. Yet this in itself may only have been a transitional phase. The greatest problem with any revolution, such as the one Chávez led in 1998, is that it may just involve an old elite being replaced by a new one. Though people, rightly, complain that Chávez’s style of government made it difficult to institutionalize the post-partidocracia regime, in the short run this may have had some redeeming consequences. The most important was perhaps that the attack on the old elite did not create a new entrenched elite (think: the Arab spring in Egypt without the immediate triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood).
If Venezuela is lucky, this will have created a more fluid political society where there may be a chance to create something very different and much more inclusive.
An interesting comparison here is to Argentina. The attack in the 1940s by Perón on the traditional elites created a political machine, and an associated band of political elites, which have dominated politics and run the country ever since, with far more disastrous economic consequences than the previous regime in Argentina. Chavismo, by its un-institutionalized nature, seems not to have created such a machine, which is possibly his greatest legacy and the only cause for hope for the future of Venezuelan democracy.