Friday, 8 March 2013

VENEZUELA: The survival of ''Chavismo'' without Chávez

Hated or loved him: Hugo Chavéz was a charismatic leader. For some, he was a ''hero'' and others an ''enigma''. One thing we can all be sure is that: Hugo Chávez's death has initiated a substantial shift in the Venezuela political landscape, a void in the regional leadership.

Of course, lovers and haters of Chávez will have different memories of Hugo Chávez, but all will remember his spending: socialism had never had so much purchasing power. Chávez believed in throwing money at every problem. That attitude generated the most impressive consumption boom Venezuela has ever seen. Chávez's spending has benefitted many sectors, including the middle classes and many elites, but it is his outlays for social welfare that Venezuelans will remember the most.

During his 14 years as president, Chavéz has launched more than 27 missions, his government's name for social programs. The missions were sold as helping the poor, but no one in government ever worried much about whether the returns justified the investments, or whether the main beneficiaries really were the worst-off.

At any rate, the opposition has maintained that social spending underwrote Chávez electoral victories. Chavistas don't disagree. And yet, it is impossible to imagine any successor to Chavéz having the same penchant for unrestrained largess that Chávez did. It is a question of both: values and capacity.

Even for a country awash with cash as Venezuela has been since 2004, Chávez's spendthrift ways have left behind a worrisome level of debt, fiscal deficit, and independence on imports. Whoever succeeds Chávez will thus need to make an economic adjustment, to borrow a phrase from the International Monetary Fund. And doing so will accentuate splits within Chavismo. One faction will want to protect the elites and military. Another will want to protect oil sector. Still others will want to protect the missions. Doing all that at once will be impossible, and that means only one thing: after the grand funeral: there is trouble ahead.

The looming problems raise the question of where Chávez got the money for all his spending to begin with. The answer is the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chávez's spending habits have been matched only by his selling habits.

Between 1999 and 2011, Venezuela exports to the United States, mostly oil and oil products, totaled $341 billion.This is a extraordinarily large sum for an anti-imperialist bastion of only 29.2 million people. Indeed, Venezuela is almost as dependent on oil sales to the United States today as it was before Chávez. This points to a final piece of the Chávez legacy. He wanted to be remembered as the most anti-American leader the world has ever seen since Fidel Castro. In reality, Chávez broke with Fidel's approach to the Yankee empire early on.

Chávez enjoyed provoking the Americans, but only to certain point, and never so much that the United States brought an embargo down on his head. He played his anti-Americanism conservatively: he had sided with anti-imperialist FARC in Colombia, but also managed to stay on good terms with the Colombian government. He had cooperated with Iran, but had also maintained good relations with pro-American Saudis. He avoided nuclear weapons. 

Chávez came to understand that his expensive revolution needed the United States oil market and that he could not put his access to that market at risk. Chávez should be remembered ad the United States' reliable oil partner--the ultimate seller.. Radicals from around the world love chávez for his anti-Americanism. And chávez no doubt loved his radical followers. Eager to emulate him, the revolution's caretakers will follow his lead.

Since there are limits to the Chinese market for Venezuela oil, preserving access to the United States' oil market will thus remain the unstated goal of the Chávista revolution. Anti-imperialism will live long in Venezuela, but only if it stays true to the conservative variety that Chávez invented.

Chávez was the most prominent of the leftist leaders in Latin America. And his death has also triggered a race to fill his revolutionary boots. ( Read more on this in my article: '' Latin America'': Regional Leadership'': The Race to fill Chávez's shoes'', published in this blog on :Wednesday, February 27th 2013).

Chávez invented 21st century socialism and his “Bolivarian” revolution, named after the independence hero Simon Bolivar. The model, with some variations, was replicated in a handful of other countries by leaders emulating Chavismo’s aims. Chávez’s ideological allies in the region moved to improve the lot of the poor and aggressively empower political supporters by taking control of as many levers of power as possible.

But the task of convincing the poor in Latin America that Chavismo is the way forward has become much more difficult since another route has proved much more effective. The model made popular by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, aggressively raising the income of the poorest while unabashedly supporting the business community and welcoming foreign investment, has brought prosperity without strife.

Nevertheless, to his most ardent backers in Venezuela and among the international left, Chávez was a hero driven by humanitarian impulses to redress social injustice and inequality; problems long neglected by a traditional political class intent on protecting its own position while denying the masses their rightful share of wealth and meanigful political participation. He bravely fought for Latin American solidarity and standing up to the overbearing United States. With charisma and oil dollars, he seized an opportunity to correct the power and wealth imbalances that have long defined Venezuelan and hemispheric affairs.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
Researcher and Author