Untangling the Chávez Enigma

The contradictions he had fostered in Venezuela were already coming to the fore.

Felled by cancer at age 58: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías packed a long reign into his shortened life. Shortly after Chávez assumed office in 1999, Gabriel García Márquez spoke of the new leader as “an enigma,” some part successor to Simón Bolívar and some part tin-pot dictator. But maybe Chávez was more predictable than his image suggests.

Once headlines give way to history books, Chávez will likely be remembered more for his diplomatic exploits than domestic policy. He called President George W. Bush the devil from a UN lectern; ordered tanks to the Colombian border in preparation for war with the US ally; referred to FARC terrorists as “brothers”; accused Israel of genocide; and claimed to be building a nuclear bomb with Iran. In each case, there wasn’t much of a story to uncover: Chávez said it all on TV.

Chávez also used his country’s oil wealth to finance an unprecedented foreign aid program. He poured money into countries where elections could be most easily bought and, from 2005 to 2008, helped elect populist presidents in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Argentina. While these relationships formed Venezuela’s base of support in the region, Chávez didn’t shy away from broader initiatives. For example, in 2008 Chávez funneled nearly as much foreign aid through Petrocaribe, a subsidized oil program for Central American and Caribbean countries, than the entire foreign aid budgets of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. And, lest one forget, Chávez reached out to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia, cooking up various anti-American schemes that succeeded in scaring up oil prices on occasion, but history will record little more.

Meanwhile, on the home front Chávez nursed a “participatory” movement that traded away checks-and-balances on executive power (such as independent media and sound central bank management) for social welfare programs, including homes for the poor and free medical care. Chavismo will likely define the identity of Venezuela’s political left for decades to come, much like Peronism has done in Argentina.

Still, even if one views these developments in the harshest lights, Chávez’s rule does not compare to the doldrums of bad rule suffered under the likes of the Duvaliers in Haiti or Videla in Argentina. And Venezuela, with a spate of coup attempts in its recent history and the world record for the number of sovereign defaults in the modern era, was hardly a paragon of good government prior to 1999. Rather, Chávez’s Venezuela is the story of opportunity squandered by a man who planned to rule into his 70s and thought he could run every sector of government through a crony.

Now the internal contradictions are nearing the surface. The continuous mobilization that Chávez urged of his followers should benefit his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), in the presidential elections that must be held within 30 days. But there is a problem: not only does the country’s democratic opposition remain united around Henrique Capriles, but the PSUV shows signs of fracturing into rival camps—one led by Vice President Nicolás Maduro, the other led by the National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello—in part a product of Chávez’s near continuous medical treatment in Cuba since winning reelection last October.

So while Chávez began his political life by leading a failed coup attempt in 1992, which he justified on the grounds that Venezuela’s two-party system was hopelessly corrupt, it is the two-party contest that offers the most likely path for Chávez’s party to democratically retain power in the wake of his death.

In recent months, Havana appeared to exert a growing influence over Venezuelan affairs, evidently preparing the ground for what many anticipated to be a scrum to secure foreign aid from the post-Chávez government. Then in February Raúl Castro announced he would retire at the end of his current term in 2018. Castro’s support could have helped reaffirm the credentials of a Chávez PSUV successor, but it’s no longer clear if the 81-year-old leader of the communist island will have any interest in meddling in Venezuelan affairs. The revolutionary flame is also flickering out in the Caribbean.

Chávez made Venezuela into a regional power by rigging together a combination of outlandish rhetoric, gargantuan sums of foreign aid and largely predictable populist policies. As oil revenues decline and pressure within the PSUV to merge rhetoric with action builds, the enigma of Chávez may be unwound, but the keys to his success will become elusive.

Sean Goforth is author of Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran and the Threat to America.

Image: Flickr/Dilma Rousseff. CC BY-SA 2.0.