The Post-Chávez Puzzle

Enormous questions must be answered before the emergency elections.

When I first traveled to Venezuela in late April 2002, the people were smoldering. Two weeks before, emotions had nearly boiled over into civil strife during an aborted coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez Frías. But for some reason the firestorm I anticipated never erupted.

This pattern of Venezuela being on the brink but then pulling back recurred throughout Hugo Chávez’s fourteen years of rule. Now, with Chávez succumbing to cancer on March 5 after a long battle, a big question looms. Does the passing of Chávez, a man his supporters felt embodied a revolutionary cause and his opponents felt represented a grave danger, end the possibility for a firestorm?

For the next week, Venezuela is likely to be in a brief moment of unity during the state funeral and memorials that will be held for Chávez. This moment opens an opportunity to grasp deeper lessons about national unity.

Considering the uncertain institutional circumstances in which Chávez left Venezuela, the country will need to channel expressions of condolences into dispassionate dialogue if it is to peacefully address the enormous questions on the horizon. Unlike neighboring Colombia, where polarization produced bloody civil strife, Venezuela faces dramatic uncertainty and maintains mechanisms for talking out problems and compromising.

The Institutional Puzzle

Chávez, who won reelection in October 2012 against Henrique Capriles by an eleven-point margin in a single-round vote, was never healthy enough to take the oath of office for his fourth term. In December 2012, Chávez travelled to Cuba for a very risky operation to treat what he claimed to be the reappearance of cancerous cells—on the campaign trail he had claimed that chemotherapy had cured him completely but the public remained skeptical.

Chávez never appeared healthy in public again, and when the January date for inaugurating his new term passed with only a highly questionable decision from the supreme court stating popular sovereignty permitted “administrative continuity” (allowing the existing government to retain office), uncertainty grew. His anointed successor, the unelected vice president, Nicolás Maduro, became de facto head of state, the face of chavismo without Chávez. International creditors balked at new funding, the opposition wondered aloud about the government’s legitimacy, and Venezuelans at large saw an unelected official devaluing their currency.

Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution states that when the elected President “becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration,” this triggers new elections within “thirty consecutive days” while the president of the national assembly maintains the presidency on an interim basis. However, in another highly questionable interpretation of the constitution, this procedure will not be followed to the letter of the law. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua announced that Maduro remains head of state during the thirty days ahead of the elections. In a sense the government is sanctioning its own legitimacy, a legacy of Chávez’s hollowing out of independent institutional authority.

This move, and the broader context of de facto government, will raise deep doubts about the fairness of the campaign. During the elections last fall, national election observers documented what Venezuelans call ventajismo—the use of state resources and propaganda to the incumbent’s advantage. In national referenda and regional elections for governors and mayors, the opposition surmounted the obstacle of ventajismo. Notwithstanding the established inequality in campaign resources, these results show the electoral system permits competitive elections.

The Mixed Legacy

With Maduro likely to campaign on Chávez’s legacy, and Capriles expressing interest in the spirit of some of his policies, it is important to consider the record of this charismatic Leftist leader who made an indelible mark on Venezuelan politics.

Chávez came to power after forty years (1958-1998) of two-party democracy decomposed into what struck many Venezuelans as a system for corrupt political elites clinging to power. Soon after winning election in 1998, Chávez raised expectations in rewriting the constitution and promising to rescue this oil-rich homeland from neoliberal economics, to revolutionize democracy for the poor, and to unite Latin America and the Caribbean against “imperialist forces.”

Helped by a booming state-run oil sector and personal panache, Chávez’s policies penetrated and reshaped the social fabric of Venezuela. His ego, aversion to dialogue, and reflexive distrust of liberal institutions stain his legacy. Poverty measured by purchasing power is down, but public services remain substandard and crime has skyrocketed; policies for self-help community participation function but don’t reinforce societal accountability over the state; and efforts to design a new architecture for democratic governance faltered in the face of opposition pressure and Chávez’s intransigence. New international alliances gelled but never cemented as his reputation waned and waxed.

The post-Chávez election

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