Hugo Chavez, the populist leader of Venezuela, recently made headlines when he was unable to turn up to his January 10th swearing-in ceremony after getting a fourth consecutive term as President. Doubts are now being cast over whether the President can now sustain his career with his health deteriorating. It is therefore worth asking, can Venezuela maintain its current authoritarian-nationalist system with Chavez out of the picture?
Chavez is a popular and transformative figure no doubt. Even in the West, where he is largely criticised, he still has large support among some groups. It’s unlikely he would have Hollywood types like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone showing up to hang out if he didn’t have some degree of charm and presence. In this sense, Chavez is in many ways typical of Latin-American leaders, focusing on the populist approach of politics, based much on cult of personality rather than open politics.
While Chavez is still sick and receiving cancer treatment in Cuba, his vice-president has been in charge; foreign minister Nicolas Maduro, who he placed in this position following his last surgery. Despite his absence during the most recent election however, Chavez’ United Socialist Party are keeping him as the leader despite the fact that he is now is unable (albeit possibly temporarily) to govern in the country. This shows that the system he has built is not sustainable without the cult of personality element that Chavez offers.
In many ways, Chavez has certainly made many successful reforms within the country, such as reducing poverty, funding health care and education. It has been reported that since 2004, poverty in Venezuela has been cut by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 per cent. Eligibility for public housing has increased, along with college enrolment doubling,
Supporters of the regime will argue that Chavez has always been democratically elected, and unlike other Latin American figures he is a Democrat at heart. However, this is categorically untrue. If anything, Chavez is more of an autocrat who happens to have secured a democratic mandate. His first attempt to achieve power in 1992 was an unsuccessful coup d’état against the Democratic Action government of Carlos Pérez, a centrist democrat.
In the 1980s Chavez founded the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, a secretive paramilitary organisation that staged the failed coup against the democratically elected leader. This movement was set up, in the words of Chavez himself, “within the ranks of the Army” of Venezuela. It began as a political intellectual circle but soon turned into a subversive conspiracy against the system in Venezuela. Chavez in reality as always believed at heart that elections are really a fixed game, legitimising the established order.
Chavez is noted for is anti-imperialism, challenging the perception among many that the world will forever be led by Washington. He has taken over the torch from Fidel Castro as the main opposition to United States imperialism in Latin America, and has proven himself to be successful in the anti-American movements. However, his anti-imperialism isn’t always consistent. He has rightly attacked CIA meddling in Latin-American affairs but has little to say about Cuba’s control over much of the region.
In spite of his claims of bringing further Democracy to Latin America, he still remains close with people like Fidel Castro, who he visited in 2006 when he became ill. Cuba has a large amount of power of Venezuela, and it is therefore not surprising that Chavez has become increasingly autocratic with Cuba as his closest ally. Venezuelan oil has also been used to bankroll Castro’s regime in Cuba over the past number of years as well, helping to sustain the system.
According to José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of human rights watch, “Over the years, the Chávez government has built a legal regime that allows it to censor and punish its critics, in clear violation of international norms. Now it is using these laws to limit public discussion on issues of national importance”. The organisation has criticised Venezuela’s Media Responsibility Law, and have accused it of trying to “limit public discussion on issues of national importance”.
Yet, in spite of these abuses of power, Chavez is not ruling with the barrel of a gun. There is a lot of support for him, with huge groups of supporters rallying for him while he’s been sick. It is unlikely another figure who would replace him could get away with the same policies without the Chavez personality cult. According to Human Rights Watch, the Chavez government have been trying to halt conversation about his health and that he cannot attend his inauguration for the same reasons.
Despite this mass amount of support Chavez and his government have also had to deal with various detractors. Venezuela state television has repeatedly ran ads denouncing Federico Medina Ravell, for questioning on twitter the official information the government has provided regarding the president’s health and condition. Ravell has since had his computers seized and been arrested under terrorism charges.
There are many good qualities to Chavez. He has proven that an alternative to neoliberalism and Washington-style politics can work, although it is questionable whether other countries would be successful without Venezuela’s huge amount of oil. He has proven to be a popular president, managing to win four terms. This has not stopped an inherently authoritarian streak in the man however.
His cult of personality is his most valuable asset. It’s unlikely another president without his popularity would be able to rid of protesters by putting them up on false terrorism charges without some sort of mass protest against him. Hugo may very well recover and continue to rule, but if not, it is questionable whether the authoritarian system in Venezuela can sustain itself. Time will tell.