How Chavez Changed Latin American Politics

How Chavez Changed Latin American Politics

The radical left's rise made the moderate left more palatable.


The era of Hugo Chávez is over, and the era of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, began in earnest on Sunday with his controversial election in the snap presidential poll called after Chávez's death five months ago.

But even with the election results still in doubt, the former Venezuelan leader still loomed large in the postelection struggle. Maduro, in his victory speech (and in his speech accepting the results of the national election commission certifying his win) let everyone know that el comandante will be with us for some time. Throughout the campaign, Chávez loomed much larger than either Maduro himself and the candidate of the united opposition, Henrique Capriles.


After fourteen years in power, his legacy will figure for some time throughout the entire hemisphere. Not just through his petrodiplomacy to boost countries like Cuba and Nicaragua, though one of the biggest questions of the Maduro era will be whether Venezuela's subsidized oil largesse will continue. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner wasted no time in congratulating Maduro while he was just minutes into his victory speech Sunday night, and no doubt many of Latin America's leaders will arrive Friday for Maduro's hasty inauguration.

Latin America’s Real Contest

The contest was to some degree a referendum on two dueling perspectives in Latin American government. The fight for the heart of Latin America over the past decade has been between the anti-American, socialist chavista left, and a more moderate left that seeks harmony between progrowth policies while simultaneously pushing ambitious social-welfare programs. Thus, the election was not a traditional fight—between left and right—as much as it was a fight between the continuity of Maduro-led chavismo and an opposition approach that bears much in common with the more moderate left in Latin America.

This was especially evident in the closing days of the campaign. Capriles reiterated that he would not disrupt the misiones instituted by Chávez to provide health care, education, literacy, housing and other programs to Venezuela's poorest; that he would raise the minimum wage by 40 percent to keep up with inflation; and that public-employee jobs would be in no danger under his administration.

One of the strongest arguments against Chávez's legacy is that many Latin American countries achieved reductions in poverty similar to Chávez’s Venezuela without resorting to anti-American theatrics, ad hoc expropriations, and the systemic weakening of state institutions, the courts and press freedom. But Chávez's radical revolutionary act has, in many ways, facilitated the growth of the moderate left—the social reformers elsewhere in Latin America have thrived simply because they weren't Chávez, who took every opportunity to antagonize the United States on the world stage. Maduro, on the defensive because of his narrow victory, seems likely to follow in those footsteps—after all, he accused U.S. officials of giving Chávez terminal cancer—though it remains to be seen whether Maduro has either the charismatic magnetism or the petrodollars to become the same kind of leftist symbol as his mentor.

The clearest contrast to the Chávez model is Brazil, where president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva oversaw the entry of millions into the middle class and a doubling in GDP per capita from 2003 to 2010, through an aggressive progrowth courting of the business elite, but also through the widespread promulgation of the Bolsa Familia (“family allowance”), which provides direct cash grants to Brazilian families in exchange for school attendance and child vaccination, and which extends to nearly 30 percent of all Brazilians.

But the tidy duality of a moderate lulista left and a radical chavista left obscures the complex, often symbiotic relationship between the two forces. In particular, Lula da Silva was always incredibly cunning in using Chávez as a foil in hemispheric politics. Lula da Silva made three failed presidential bids prior to his election in 2002, fully four years after Chávez took power. By the time Lula da Silva took office, Chávez had arguably done more than anyone else in Latin America to make Lula da Silva seem moderate in contrast.

It's certain that Lula's vast social reforms would seem more radical—and may have met more domestic and international disapproval—if not for Chávez's ad hoc expropriations and anticapitalist fulminations from Caracas. By giving Chávez his full support, he guaranteed especially kind treatment of Brazilian private interests in Venezuela, and his fervent support for Maduro in a taped endorsement earlier this month was provided in no small part to ensure kindness from a Maduro administration. Brazilian officials have already started casting aspersions on the Capriles camp, which has called for a full recount of the vote. But Lula da Silva's support for Chávez also gently reminded U.S. diplomats that they had an interest in boosting the Brazilian model as a counterweight to the Venezuelan model throughout the region.

That dynamic doesn't hold true just for Brazil. For example, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who leads polls to return to office later this year, pushed through an incredibly progressive set of reforms to Chile's pension system that establishes a guaranteed pension for the lowest half of Chileans and a special bonus for mothers, while overhauling employment laws to provide additional protection for temporary workers and to introduce pay equality. Not even Nancy Pelosi would have dreamed to push that through the U.S. Congress in 2009, but Bachelet remains beloved internationally as well as in Chile.

Even Chávez's allies, such as Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's Evo Morales, have been able to act with more impunity against U.S. interests without suffering the kind of retribution that they would have in the 1990s, let alone during the Cold War. Correa, for instance, has antagonized the U.S. government by providing asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and thumbed his nose at international investors by defaulting on Ecuador's debt. Despite somewhat improved U.S.-Bolivian relations under U.S. president Barack Obama, Morales has refused to allow Drug Enforcement Agency officials back into his country and he's pushed for legalization of coca, a stance that's winning ever wider support worldwide, not just from the left but the libertarian right as well.

The Chavez Legacy

It's unimaginable that John Foster Dulles or Henry Kissinger or even James Baker would have allowed either Correa or Morales to get away with so much. That's partly because the Cold War is over and the Bush administration spent most of the 2000s distracted on matters far afield from Latin America. But it's also due to the specter of inspiring yet another mini-Chávez elsewhere in the region.

In Venezuela, bitter partisans will never agree about what, if anything, Hugo Chávez created. But there's no doubt that by occupying a petrodollar-fueled perch on the radical left, Chávez created space for progressive leftism to become much more palatable throughout Latin America. He did this all while transforming an ossified, oligarchic, conservative opposition at home into a moderately progressive force that, two days after the election, is waging a spirited challenge to chavismo.

Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and editor of the foreign policy blog

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil. CC BY 3.0.