MÉRIDA, Venezuela — When Hugo Chavez’s death was announced late in the afternoon on March 5, a collective sadness gripped his supporters across the nation. Shoppers stopped their tasks in the street and rushed to the nearest television. People hugged those next to them as tears ran down their faces. The grief displayed may have come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the bond the Venezuelan president had built with the poor majority in his country. Yet as estimates of the numbers flocking to Caracas for his funeral stretched into the millions, no one could deny the popular support enjoyed by Chavez and his project, the Bolivarian Revolution.
In his 14 years as Venezuelan president, Chavez led a transformative period in the South American nation, rejecting neoliberalism and spearheading a process of nationalizations, social programs and participatory democratic practices that came to be known as “21st-century socialism.” Meanwhile, he made international headlines opposing the foreign policy of the United States and its allies, while advocating Latin American integration and a “multipolar” world order.
Yet after his death, what are the prospects for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution? Will the Chavista movement fall apart without its historic leader? And if the Revolution does continue, what are the challenges facing Venezuela beyond the next presidential election?
CHOOSING A SUCCESSOR
In the whirlwind of emotion created by their charismatic president’s passing, Venezuelans are preparing to choose Chavez’s replacement in a snap election. On April 14, they will decide whether to press ahead with the Revolution or to take a rightward turn and opt for the country’s conservative opposition.
It seems very likely that the majority of Venezuelans will choose the former option and elect Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s designated successor and former vice president. Less than six months have passed since Chavez was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote, and those who supported him will almost certainly turn out again to continue his project. Venezuelans have not forgotten Chavez’s final address to the nation on Dec. 8 before he left for Cuba to undergo cancer surgery. Hands slightly trembling, he said, “I want to say something, although it sounds hard … if something should happen [to me] … it is my firm, absolute, and irrevocable opinion that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president. I ask you this from my heart.” After Chavez’s death, his supporters have taken on this wish, chanting “Chavez, te juro, mi voto por Maduro” (“Chavez, I swear to you, my vote is for Maduro”) at his funeral and at rallies around the country.
Maduro, a burly former bus driver and fierce Chavez loyalist, has made clear that his mandate will be to maintain the former president’s legacy, submitting Chavez’s previous campaign platform as his own. “We are here to guarantee peace and that the Bolivarian Revolution continues its socialist course; we’re fulfilling the orders of the Comandante [Chavez],” he said upon registering his presidential candidacy. Maduro has received criticism from the opposition that his working-class background and former occupation make him “unsuitable” for the job of president. However, this line of attack was turned on its head when Maduro arrived at the Electoral Council headquarters to register his candidacy driving a bus. The stunt was meant to help Maduro connect with the Chavista base, and it showed Maduro’s previously unseen humor. As he emerged from his bus surrounded by cameras and supporters, the smile beneath his thick black moustache said: “Like Chavez, I am one of you.”
Meanwhile, the opposition has put forward state governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez by 11 percent in October. Capriles has said that he offers a “united country” and focuses his discourse on issues perceived as difficult for the government, such as crime, inflation and the recent monetary devaluation.
The clean-cut, 40-year-old politician has emerged as the poster boy of the opposition’s middle- and upper-class support. His energetic, nation-wide campaign tours have helped him move his image away from his roots; Capriles was born into one of Venezuela’s richest families. As a mayor in 2002 he faced accusations of participating in the short-lived, U.S.-backed coup against the Chavez government. Indeed, when Chavez’s death was announced, Capriles was on his way back to Venezuela from a visit to the United States where he was assumed to be drumming up support and funding from backers.
IN THE RUN-UP TO THE APRIL 14 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, VENEZUELA’S RIGHT-WING OPPOSITION HAS DEVELOPED A PARALLEL POLITICAL STRATEGY: TO DISCREDIT THE VENEZUELAN ELECTORAL SYSTEM, AND WITH IT, THE LEGITIMACY OF THE RESULT
This campaign seems to have begun in Washington on March 15 when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said that it would be “a little difficult” for Venezuela to hold “open, fair, and transparent elections.” Since then, opposition politicians, pro-opposition students, and allied private media have launched attacks at the National Electoral Council (CNE), the voting system, the timing of the election (which is mandated by the Constitution), and other aspects.
Extreme points of this campaign include an editorial by leading conservative daily El Nacional that called the president of the CNE “a liar” and “foolish” and the CNE itself “a team chosen and armed by [the government] to ambush the voter at every bend in the road.” Meanwhile, this campaign has reached out to international opinion, with hard-liner Diego Arria writing in the Huffington Post that Venezuela’s electoral system is “corrupt” and that the CNE is “no more than a tool of the [Venezuelan government] to maintain its power.”
To anyone familiar with Venezuela’s electoral system this campaign is clearly disingenuous. Venezuela’s voting system, which utilizes both automated and manual security checks to prevent fraudulent voting or tabulating of results, was described by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter last October as “the best electoral system in the world.” Indeed, last year the opposition asked the CNE to organize the opposition’s own internal elections, calling the CNE at the time “an excellent example of democratic institutions in the country.”
With Chavez’s designated successor Nicolas Maduro holding a double-digit lead in the polls, the endgame appears to be to discredit Maduro’s likely victory as much as possible by claiming that the election was not “fair” in the first place. Pro-government figures have alleged that the opposition is even considering pulling out of the election, or not recognizing the result afterwards. Others argue it is part of a long-term strategy to delegitimize Maduro. Whatever the opposition decides to do, its claims of an “unfair” election will find a ready ear in the world’s mass media, which is accustomed to casting Venezuela’s vibrant democracy in the worst possible light.
— Ewan Robertson
However, in a shift from his previously conciliatory discourse, Capriles turned his guns on Maduro and the government on the issue of Chavez’s passing, accusing the government of “lying” about Chavez’s death. “Who knows when the president died?” he said in a press conference, as he announced he would stand against Maduro. “You [Maduro] and the government had it all planned. … you were campaigning for weeks … and on top of that now you’re using the president’s body to run a political campaign,” he declared.
This approach is unlikely to appeal to undecided voters or Chavez supporters, especially after Chavez’s daughter, Maria Gabriela, released a statement repudiating the accusations, calling the strategy “dirty” and asking Capriles to apologize. Many Chavez supporters have described the comments as “insensitive” and “political suicide.”
Opposition leaders have also launched increasingly strident attacks against the National Electoral Council, which oversees balloting and has been widely praised for its work by many international observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (see story at right). This campaign to delegitimize the election comes as polling evidence suggests Maduro is headed to victory on April 14. Two late March polls by private Venezuelan firms Datanalisis and Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 14 percent and 18 percent lead, respectively, over Capriles. Thus, it appears that support for the Bolivarian project remains solid among a majority of the country’s population, and that Venezuelans are set to opt for six more years of the Revolution initiated by Chavez’s election in 1998.
However, after its likely electoral victory, the Bolivarian project faces a number of challenges.
A key challenge in the coming period will be to improve the government’s social policies and programs, or “missions,” which have been central to the Bolivarian Revolution’s popularity over the last decade. These programs — from establishing universal healthcare, to the expansion of educational opportunities and the provision of welfare — have resulted in undeniable social gains. Chief among these are halving the household poverty rate from 55 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2009, the near eradication of illiteracy, and the U-turn on income distribution, making Venezuela the most equal country in Latin America.
However, since 2009, poverty levels have hovered stubbornly around the 27 percent mark, reflecting the limits of existing programs. Further social gains will also depend on wider economic policy and trends. Maduro, who is currently interim president, has recently put forward several initiatives to improve government social programs, promising to “perfect, polish and deepen” them.
Another important challenge for the Bolivarian Revolution is to advance its political goals, namely the establishment of socialism and the creation of a participatory democracy. This is a particularly thorny issue because different currents within the Bolivarian movement have different ideas of what “socialism” entails, ranging from top-down state control of certain economic sectors to forms of community and worker control over a wide range of political and economic activities.
Furthermore, the movement’s radical wing warns that bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary “fifth column” forces act against grassroots initiatives and block the revolution’s growth. These critical voices argue that bureaucratic and corrupt elements within the government and the ruling PSUV party must be confronted.
“A frontal battle against corruption is needed. The contradictions in the heart of the process aren’t just anything. Not everyone in the government is revolutionary,” said Jose Pinto, secretary-general of the Tupamaro movement, a Marxist organization that supports the Bolivarian process. Echoing the concerns of other leftist groups in the same interview, he further argued that “ending bureaucracy is a fundamental task, because it drives corruption”.
Nevertheless, during the previous 14 years millions of ordinary Venezuelans have been drawn into grassroots activism, in many cases facilitated by the Chavez presidency, such as with funding and legislation to favor the formation of thousands of community councils. There is also evidence that the shock produced by Chavez’s death has encouraged some supporters to become newly-active, perceiving the need to defend the revolution against an uncertain future. In that sense, the struggle to fulfill the revolution’s political aims will depend on the ability of grassroots activists to articulate their demands and combat the revolution’s bureaucratic elements. Nicolas Maduro will also play a role in this conflict – so far he has appeared open to criticisms from below.
CRIME AND INEFFICIENCY
The post-Chavez government will also need to effectively address certain on-going problems in Venezuela. These include violent crime and inefficiency in the state administration.
The Chavez government received much criticism for its handling of crime, with UN data citing a homicide rate in 2010 of 45.1 per 100,000, the third-highest in the Americas. The government has developed a range of policies in the last few years to combat this, such as slowly rolling out a new national police force, civilian disarmament strategies, and a new anti-crime program called Full Life Venezuela. Maduro has proposed to continue and deepen these policies, however their overall effect remains to be seen.
Combatting corruption and bureaucracy in judicial, penal and other state institutions is another complex set of problems which must be addressed. Maduro has taken up Chavez’s slogan of “efficiency or nothing” and committed to continue pro-efficiency policies designed after Chavez’s October victory, as well as to create a new “anti-corruption force”. However progress may be slow, as these phenomena existed long before Chavez came to power and will not be easily resolved.
‘WE ARE CONSCIOUS’
Following Chavez’s death, many would have predicted that the Bolivarian revolution, bereft of the unifying force of its historic leader, would fall apart. However, what has been observed so far is the determination of the revolution’s supporters to work together and continue the process. That determination will likely be evidenced on April 14. A strong Maduro win would confirm the project’s majority support among the Venezuelan population and give a mandate for the continuance of the process of change underway since 1998.
In such a case, the Bolivarian revolution will need to successfully address both internal contradictions and persistent national problems in order to maintain that support and move further toward the movement’s long term political goals. Failure to do so could lead to stagnation and provide an electoral opportunity for the conservative opposition in the future.
In this regard, a common opinion expressed by Chavez supporters in recent interviews is that of Adriana Rodriguez, a community media activist in Merida city. She spoke to me at a rally to commemorate Chavez’s memory in the central plaza of the colonial town. Thousands of red-clad activists were roaring “Chavez lives, the fight goes on!”, while well-wishers carefully laid flowers beside a picture of Chavez. Above towered a statue of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s 19th century independence hero whose example so-influenced Chavez’s life. Looking at the crowd, Adriana said that when Chavez died, “It was a hard blow; I cried uncontrollably for days, it was like losing a family member”. However, rather than being disillusioned, she said she felt that “we are organized and we are conscious of the historic role that we have: to carry forward this process, which now goes beyond Venezuela”.
With millions of Venezuelans sharing this sentiment, it feels a little premature to describe a post-Chavez Venezuela just yet. Rather, the Comandante’s thought and legacy will continue shaping the country and the wider region for some time into the future.
Ewan Robertson lives in Mérida, Venezuela, and is a staff writer for Venezuelanalysis.com. He holds a postgraduate degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Aberdeen, and is currently researching Venezuela’s Community Medicine program.