Chavismo After Chávez

The Race to Claim the Mantle of Venezuela's Revolution

A mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters)

These days, the Venezuelan government is busy preparing for the re-inauguration of the country's beloved president, Hugo Chávez, and also for his funeral. Chávez, who has been in office for 14 years, was re-elected for a third time in October 2012. He is scheduled to take the oath of office once more on January 10. But Chávez has been sick with an undisclosed form of cancer since at least 2011 and, after months of press releases that said he was getting better by the day, the government announced on December 30 that new complications had emerged during the leader's fourth surgery in Havana. Chávez, still in Cuba and presumably still alive, might not make it back for his swearing-in ceremony.

Venezuela's constitution offers some guidance on what to do. If the president dies, the vice president (in this case, Nicolás Maduro, an avowed communist) will take office. He will call a new election within 30 days. If Chávez survives but cannot attend the inauguration, most jurists agree that the president of the National Assembly (Diosdado Cabello, who will presumably be reelected to that post in a vote on January 5) will take power. If the government then rules that the president-elect is only "temporarily absent," Cabello will govern for 90 days, which will be renewable for 90 more. If it instead declares the president-elect to be "permanently absent," Cabello would be constitutionally obligated to call an early election.

The government seems to be at a loss. It is organizing church services, making somber announcements, and readying the country for the prospect of life without Chávez. But it has also announced that Chávez will certainly be re-inaugurated soon, come what may. Cabello has promised that the government will think of something -- maybe swear Chávez in some other day, or in absentia. It has even hinted at the possibility of flying the Supreme Court to Cuba to swear in the dying president there.

The result of these mixed messages is emotional and political confusion. The emotional confusion is easy to understand: Chavistas are being asked to harbor hope and sorrow, all at once. (The opposition, too, is full of hope and sorrow, but for the opposite reasons.)

The political confusion, meanwhile, is no small matter. The government's unwillingness to accept that Chávez most likely cannot be inaugurated has produced unnecessary uncertainty. The indecision is probably the result of a power struggle within Chávez's party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The PSUV knows well that the timing of the announcement of the president's absence (whether it occurs before or on the inauguration date) and the type of absence (permanent or temporary) determines who gets to control the succession, Maduro or Cabello. And each man leads a different faction.

Chávez stated his preference for Maduro to succeed him in December, during a weekend visit to Caracas between cancer treatments. But the rest of the party does not seem to be fully on board. Maduro's opponents believe that he is too close to Cuba and too distant from Venezuela. As foreign minister since 2006, Maduro has spent much of his time away from home in recent years. Cabello, too, has detractors. Thanks to his history as a member of the armed forces, a state governor, and a minister of public works, he is seen as being allied with the least glorious element of Venezuela's revolution: corrupt businessmen and military officials who have profited from their dealings with the state.

Whoever takes the reins will be tasked with keeping Chavismo alive. What that means, of course, depends on where one falls on the political spectrum. Elías Jaua, a leading Chavista, recently wrote an op-ed defining the term as one who has an "amorous connection" with a leader who never betrayed Venezuelans and who taught them that "they have rights to all rights." Chávez has worked hard to cultivate that affection in the last few years. Love -- mutual love -- was part of his re-election campaign slogan and a heart-shaped Venezuelan flag was his logo. Even Maduro got in on the act and called the election results an "act of love" from Venezuelans to their "comandante presidente."

But in the eyes of the opposition, Chávez is an elected despot -- someone who uses his popularity to erode the rule of law. It is inconceivable to them that supposedly revolutionary Venezuelans are so smitten by a leader who actually exacerbated the ills of the system that his revolution was meant to replace. In other words, Chávez's main domestic legacy -- and something his successor will have to cope with -- will then be an intensely polarized nation.

Of course, lovers and haters of Chávez will have different memories of Chávez, but all will remember his spending: socialism had never had so much purchasing power. Chávez believed in throwing money at every problem. That attitude generated the most impressive consumption boom Venezuela has ever seen. Chávez's spending has benefitted many sectors, including the middle classes and many elites, but it is his outlays for social welfare that Venezuelans will remember the most. During his 14 years as president, Chávez has launched more than 27 missions, his government's name for social programs. The missions were sold as helping the poor, but no one in government ever worried much about whether the returns justified the investments, or whether the main beneficiaries really were the worst-off.

At any rate, the opposition maintains that social spending underwrote Chávez's electoral victories. Chavistas don't disagree. And yet, it is impossible to imagine any successor to Chávez having the same penchant for unrestrained largess that Chávez did. It is a question of both values and capacity. Even for a country as awash with cash as Venezuela has been since 2004, Chávez's spendthrift ways have left behind a worrisome level of debt, fiscal deficit, and dependence on imports. Whoever succeeds Chávez will thus need to make an economic adjustment, to borrow a phrase from the International Monetary Fund. And doing so will accentuate splits within Chavismo. One faction will want to protect the military. Another will want to protect the oil sector. Still others will want to protect the missions. Doing all that at once will be impossible, and that means only one thing: after the grand funeral, if there is one, there is trouble ahead.

The looming problems raise the question of where Chávez got the money for all his spending to begin with. The answer is the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chávez's spending habits have been matched only by his selling habits. Between 1999 and 2011, Venezuelan exports to the United States, mostly oil and oil products, totaled $341 billion. This is an extraordinarily large sum for an anti-imperialist bastion of only 29.2 million people. Indeed, Venezuela is almost as dependent on oil sales to the United States today as it was before Chávez.

And that points to a final piece of the Chávez legacy. He wants to be remembered as the most anti-American leader the world has seen since Fidel Castro. In reality, Chávez broke with Fidel's approach to the Yankee empire early on. To be sure, Chávez has enjoyed provoking the Americans, but only to a certain point, and never so much that the United States brought an embargo down on his head. So he has played his anti-Americanism conservatively: he has sided with the anti-imperialist FARC in Colombia, but  has also managed to stay on good terms with the Colombian government. He has cooperated with Iran, but has also maintained good relations with the pro-American Saudis. He avoided nuclear weapons.

For a man who has spent so much of his time lambasting the United States, Chávez has done remarkably little to actually punish it. Going by his public chastisements of the United States, he has had plenty of opportunities to cut off oil and force the United States' hand: to discourage the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which he opposed; to end the arms embargo on Venezuela; to keep the United States out of regional fight for the leadership of the Organization of American States; to stop the United States from siding with Colombia during its incursion into Ecuador in 2008; or to punish the United States for its passive approach to the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted a pro-Venezuelan president. Yes, Chávez has talked a big game, but he has never followed that up with action other than expelling U.S. ambassadors and increasing oil sales to China in return for loans. All the while, oil never stopped flowing north to the United States.

Chávez came to understand that his expensive revolution needed the U.S. oil market and that he couldn't put his access to that market at risk. If he dies soon, he should be remembered as the United States' reliable oil partner -- the ultimate seller. True, radicals from around the world love Chávez for his anti-Americanism. And Chávez no doubt loved his radical followers -- but probably not as much as he loved getting oil dollars from America. Eager to emulate him, the revolution's caretakers will follow his lead. Since there are limits to the Chinese market for Venezuelan oil, preserving access to the U.S. oil market will thus remain the unstated goal of the Chavista revolution. Anti-imperialism will live long in Venezuela, but only if it stays true to the conservative variety that Chávez invented.

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