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While the political establishment and the mainstream press in the United States regard the late Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, as a dangerous authoritarian demagogue, it is more useful and interesting to see him as a leader in a Latin American drive to make democracy more real for the poor majority in the region.

hugo chavez mural

Before Chávez’ first election in 1998, Venezuela had one of the longest-standing democratic regimes in Latin America, going back forty years to 1958. But the last half of that democratic period was marked by economic stagnation, political corruption, and the inability of the country’s political class to find a way out of the quagmire. After the surprise introduction of draconian austerity measures in 1989 led to massive and deadly uprisings in Caracas and other cities, Hugo Chávez exploded into the public consciousness as the leader of an unsuccessful coup in 1992.

The basic theme of Chávez’ Bolivarian Movement was the fraudulence of Venezuelan democracy, and the need for a new, authentically democratic republic. After a short term in jail, Chávez organized the political movement that carried him to decisive victory in the 1998 elections. Subsequent electoral victories saw the election of a constituent assembly, ratification of a radical democratic constitution, repeated election of friendly legislative majorities and friendly state governors, and three reelections as president.

What gave him such durable electoral power, against passionate opposition, was overwhelming support among the popular classes, the urban and rural poor, the street merchants, day laborers, the poor majority left behind by nearly a century of petroleum-led development, and forty years of a democracy that sought their votes but did nothing to improve their lives. If Chávez’ elected predecessors had been serious about raising the living standards and life prospects of the poor majority, he would have been no more than a disgraced coup-plotter, a cashiered Lieutenant Colonel.

Chávez articulated a popular expectation that democracy ought to be more than free and fair elections, more than civil and political liberty. It ought to really serve the majority by redistributing resources from the rich to the poor. While traditional liberal democracy, as promoted by the United States, limited majority power in order to protect the rights of minorities (especially the rich), Chávez called for a democracy in which the majority really ruled: a radical democracy along the lines envisioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx. He called it 21st century socialism.

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While liberal democracy, with its protection of minority rights, is biased toward stability, radical, majoritarian democracy is prone to rapid change. But to actually crystallize a majority in support of radical change, a charismatic leader is indispensable. That’s where Chávez came in. For fourteen years he was able to speak for and embody the popular majority, to define the majority will.

What he did with this popular confidence was less than we might have expected. He did channel more resources to the poor, raising living standards, providing health care, housing, schools, and infrastructure that improved the lives of the majority. But the resources were mostly oil profits. There was no fundamental transformation of the economy or society. The rich have stayed rich, as long as they haven’t directly challenged Chávez. He did no more than any of his predecessors to use petroleum profits to transform the Venezuelan economy: the country is as much a petro-state as ever, and other sectors of the economy are as weak as ever. The state’s finances are precarious, hyperinflation is a real threat, and shortages of basic commodities are becoming common.

The polity, however, has been transformed in ways that will likely be durable. The old party system’s duopoly of Acción Democrática and Copei is no more, and won’t be back. Chavismo is the new establishment; the new party system is forming around it. In the most recent elections, the opposition stopped promising to uproot chavismo root and branch, and promised instead to administer it with less corruption and inefficiency. Like peronismo in Argentina, chavismo as a populist spirit will long survive its leader.

But the demise of Chávez poses a challenge to his successors and an opportunity to his opponents. As Max Weber pointed out a century ago, charisma cannot be passed on. It can only be routinized. No successor will have the popular blank check that Chávez had. Chavismo will inevitably fragment as competing successors vie for advantage. The opposition is highly likely to win an election soon, even if the chavistas can hang together through the special presidential election now mandated by the constitution.

The Chávez era is over, but its effects will persist for many years. Hugo Chávez has had as much impact on Venezuela as his idol, Simón Bolívar. Chávez is dead, but his country will never go back.

john peeler

John Peeler

Tuesday, 5 March 2013