Chavez is Dead. Long live Chavismo? Part 1

I wrote a few months back that few sane people could truly wish for Chávez (or anyone) to die of cancer. But despite all the wishes for and against Hugo’s early demise, he’s gone now.

Everyone has something  to say about it (including this armchair politician), but the person that nailed it in one simple title was the indefatigable Moises Naim.

Naim, the former minister of trade in Venezuela before Chavez and current Carnegie Endowment scholar, titled his opinion piece in Bloomberg today:

“Hugo Chavez R.I.P.: He empowered the poor and gutted Venezuela”

A frequent critic of Chavez’s attempts to remake Venezuela’s economy, Naim had a few positive things  to say about Chavez after his death.

First, he cites:

“Chávez’s most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the center of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor. But none of his predecessors did it so aggressively and with such a passionate sense of urgency as Chávez did. And no one was more successful in planting this priority into the nation’s psyche and even exporting it to neighboring countries and beyond. Moreover, his ability to make the poor feel that one of them was in charge has no precedent.”

Second, Naim claims that Chavez:

“ended the widespread political indifference and apathy nurtured over decades by a system dominated by decaying and out-of-touch political parties. The political awakening of the nation sparked by Chávez has engulfed people in the barrios, workers, university students, the middle class, and, unfortunately, even the military.”

Before getting into the very obvious negatives in part two of this post, let’s address some important positives of Chavez’s legacy.

Hugo Chavez did what few leaders in Latin America have been able to do – turn the oligarchy on its head

Namely, that is to make the bourgeoisie flee the country and completely remake the power structure of Venezuela. This is not an obvious positive, because of the instability it provokes and the impressive wealth that fled the country in the ensuing years.

Still, as Naim references, this ” political awakening of the nation” gave the poor a voice for the first time in the history of the country and involved many new actors in a political system that often excluded them.

Chavez masterfully divided the country to create new political allegiances and power structures

Again, a questionable positive, but Chavez’s ability to create a watertight majority was confirmed last year when, even on his death bed, he was able to best a formidable and well-financed Henrique Capriles. He did this by aligning the interests of  “barrios, workers, university students, the middle class”.

In a democratic region with persistent problems of representation, a lot of Venezuelans will remember him for his ability to bring them into the political structure and make them feel like their voice mattered.

Chavez successfully turned himself into the U.S.’s Public Enemy Number One in Latin America

A clear positive for many Venezuelans, rich and poor, Chavez was able to finally present a credible Latin American ideological alternative to the United States and free market capitalism.

Unlike any other leader in Latin America, Chavez could exert power over the U.S. As one of the largest sources of North American oil imports, Venezuela stood as both an honest voice speaking about U.S. exploitation of Latin America and a capable financier of similar positions throughout the region.

Chavez was a force for regional integration

Through cheap oil, cheap loans, and straight handouts to allied governments, Chavez formed a bloc of countries across Latin America that shared an anti-US bias and an orientation toward state-run economies. This informal integration produced an external posture to the United States and the world of a strong, confident Latin America that was unmistakable while formal integration mechanisms like Mercosur, the  Comunidad Andina and Unasur have stalled and sputtered.

But as Naim clearly concludes,  the negatives far outweighed any positives on balance. And as anyone who has observed Venezuela’s decline into chaos, disorder, crime and decay over the past decade and a half can relate, Chavez’s strategy of empowering the poor and antagonizing local and foreign capital took a heavy toll on the economy that will take decades to change.

More on that in Avenida America’s next post. For now, rest in peace, Hugo.

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