06 March, 2013

Adiós Chávez

Sergio Abranches

Hugo Chávez passes away at a critical moment of Venezuela’s history. He has come to power at another critical moment of his country’s history. After leading a failed coup d’état, he became the Constitutional president by winning a regular presidential election. Venezuela faced, then, a deep political crisis due to the loss of legitimacy and credibility of the traditional political parties which dominated the country for more than four decades. Chávez dies when his country faces a deep political division at the social level, without firm leadership both on the opposition, and among the “chavistas” to lead the way forward.

A long economic crisis has not been solved by recent growth recovery. Inflation is rampant, there has been recurring shortages of food and other staples since Chávez’ first term, unemployment is high, and urban violence widespread.

The key player in post-Chávez Venezuela will very likely be the Armed Forces. The true guarantors of power are the “chavistas” generals, his old pals from the times they were all colonels or lieutenant colonels. Chávez replaced the incumbent generals by his mates, as soon as he came to power. The fact that they declared their support to Nicolás Maduro and “the Bolivarian revolution”, immediately after the announcement of their commander-in-chief death is just a sign of their decisive role in Venezuelan politics.

There is a clear, non-negligible risk of a facade civilian government, controlled by the military at the backstage. To understand the uncertainties and political risks associated with Chávez’ death we should look at the context in which chavismo emerged, and developed into a mass political movement under his leadership. Chávez’ personal, physical demise does not lead immediately to the political end of chavismo. But ‘chavismo sin Chávez’, chavismo without Chávez, becomes a totally different political phenomenon. It will be, for some time, the dominant political force in the country, but without strong leadership, or politically qualified heirs. A personalized political movement without its iconic leader may likely turn into an unstable, irritable mass uprising.

Economic difficulties, violence, and continued dependency on oil revenues will only make this complex transition even more troublesome. Chávez has used oil revenues extensively to finance his politically-oriented social and economic programs. PDVSA, the state-owned oil company has been deeply politicized, and has been in a delicate financial situation for some time.

The crisis out of which chavismo has emerged was characterized by the presence of large marginalized and dispossessed masses, electoral alienation and political demobilization. The crisis Chávez leaves as one of his presidency’s legacies is marked by a deep, radical, and aggressive polarization confronting the higher and middle classes to the overwhelmingly chavistas lower classes. Chávez has come to power at the collapse of Venezuela’s traditional political elites, and failing party leadership. He dies in the absence of strong, autonomous, credible leadership both in the opposition, and within “chavismo”.

When Hugo Chávez won the presidency, Venezuela was facing the decline of a clientele-based, oligarchic, stable semi-democratic order established by the Pact of Punto Fijo, in 1958. The main players in forging this pact were  Rómulo Betancourt and Rafael Caldera, representing the two main parties. The pact had the support of all existing parties but the Communist, and was backed by the military. It prompted four decades of stable bipartisan domination whereby the two major parties, the AD (Acción Democrática) and COPEI, have alternated in power, and controlled  all economic, social, and political power resources, including oil. In 1998, when Chávez was first elected president, electoral abstention was larger than the sum total of votes given to the traditional parties. It was the final sign indicating the collapse of the old Venezuelan political order. Chávez ended a four decade long cycle of Venezuelan politics. His death ends prematurely the cycle of chavismo under his self-centered, fierce, and charismatic control, supported by extremely loyal, and passionate popular masses.

Venezuela was a social time bomb when Chávez took power. High population growth (131% between 1961 e 1999), fast urbanization (40% increase of urban population between 1950 e 2000), and exponentially rising popular discontent made fertile ground for a personalist, charismatic, popular leadership. Add to these macro-social elements extreme marginalization of recently urbanized indigenous masses, and political demobilization, and one gets the full recipe of the emergence of chavismo. Chávez failed to seize power by a coup de force, in 1992, only to succeed with his “bolivarian” discourse to please the masses, six years later. He raised to power with a clear hegemonic calling, mobilizing the dispossessed, and feeding the deepest and most aggressive class-based political polarization the country has ever had.

To get full backing for his bolivarian project Chávez was aware he needed more than popular support though. The attempt to oust him by force, in 2002, made clear that aggressive political polarization was a double-edged sword. From the beginning of his presidency, he began to obtain full control, and to further develop, another critical political resource: the armed forces. After all, he was of military origin, a former colonel, whose military carrier was interrupted when he led the failed 1992 coup. If left on their own, the military might become a weapon of hostile conservative political elites, despite the culture of military respect for the constitutional order. He couldn’t afford that. Chávez forced the incumbent generals to retire, and promoted the colonels, and lieutenant colonels of his generation to the top of the military hierarchy. Several of them had sided with him when he tried to seize power in 1992, and were acquitted because Chávez assumed full and personal responsibility for the coup. With his brothers in arms settled as generals and commanders of strategic military units, Chávez imported top of the line armaments and other military equipment from Russia, transforming the Venezuelan armed forces into the most well and fully equipped in the continent.

Finally, he established a decisive and strategic link between the military and his social project, transferring the control of his “Misiones Sociales”, the numerous social projects destined to transfer income and social services to the impoverished masses, to military units. The “Misiones Sociales” are more than instruments of social policy financed by oil revenues: they have a strong political content, although operated by the military, rather than by the party or civilian politicians like in traditional populist governments so common in Latin American history. Social gains are undeniable, and they have supported Chávez’ control of power for 14 years.

This strategic construction of the bolivarian political system is key to understanding why all civilian leaders within chavismo are nothing but satellite leaderships, dependent on the power and light of the now dead president. This is true for the three main present political players: vice-president Nicolás Maduro, former vice-president and presently minister of Foreign Relations, Elias Jaua, the head of the Parliament and vice-chairman of the ruling party, the “Partido Unido da Venezuela” (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello,. They were brought up by Chávez. Chávez made Jaua to leave the vice-presidency to run for the government of the state of Miranda against Enrique Capriles, main leadership from the opposition, who challenged Chávez in the last presidential elections. Capriles has lost to Chávez, and Jaua to Capriles. Chávez did no longer have the physical strength to effectively campaign for Jaua. When the president was already dying and incapacitated, Maduro, as interim president, appointed him as Foreign Minister, the post that was Maduro’s when Jaua was the vice-president. Cabello, who has been with Chávez since the 1992 coup, was reelected as head of the Parliament. Cabello is the only of the three presumed heirs to have a direct linkage with the military. He has more power than the other two. It was his the call to keep Maduro as vice-president although they were never inaugurated after the last election, because Chávez was already in treatment in Cuba. But he faces very serious charges of involvement with organized crime. Organized crime has increased significantly over the next half decade in Venezuela, especially fed by drug trafficking.

After Chávez burial, next Friday, which will surely have scenes of despair and sadness among the popular masses, and very likely, moments of violence against Chávez “enemies”,  Venezuela will probably plunge into instability and uncertainty. The mobilized masses will gain the streets without a leader to lead the way. It is unlikely that the political nucleus of chavismo, Maduro, Cabello and Jaua; Adán Chávez, the president’s brother and governor of the state of Barinas, a founding father of the ruling party, PSUV, and a historic leftist militant; and Jorge Areaza, Chávez son in law, presently minister for Science and Technology, will remain united. They will very likely fight for Chávez legacy in the near future. It is questionable whether any of them has the capacity to control and keep alive chavismo, now orphaned of his creator and undisputed boss. A mobilized, frustrated, enraged, and saddened people occupying the streets without a clear centralized command have never paved a firm way to democracy and stable governance.

Venezuela will likely leave turbulent moments without Chávez, and the final result final is unpredictable. What is predictable is that the country will navigate stormy waters looking at a densely cloudy horizon, before a new and stable political order settles down. The next relevant political event after the grand burial will be the new presidential elections, to take place within 30 days as the Constitution determines. Maduro will start as the frontrunner, due to his relations with Chávez during the campaign and his illness. Capriles may run again. His public statement yesterday sounded like a first movement in that direction, when he said that he and Chávez “were adversaries, but never enemies”. He has the advantage of strong recall. He got a surprisingly high vote, running against the all-powerful, though already physically fragile, Chávez. His main disadvantage is being anti-Chávez, hence his statement. Maduro has the advantage of being pro-Chávez, and having being declared by the dying president as his replacement in the presidency. His disadvantage is the lack of charisma, and, most importantly, his lack of credibility among the masses. He is considered to be an able infighter. He may win the elections, but fail to be an effective president to lead the country in these troubled times.

Nothing is guaranteed in Venezuela, after 14 years under the firm grip of a self-centered, bright, charismatic, bombastic, ironical, and histrionic personality like Hugo Chávez.

Tags: ,