Putting the Figure of Hugo Chávez Into Context


by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser

With the death of Hugo Chávez last week, the battle for the interpretation of his legacy has begun. On the one hand, his followers will spare no effort in depicting him not only as a saviour of the nation, but also as a role model for the left in Latin America and elsewhere. On the other, his detractors will portray him as an authoritarian leader, who was able to win elections thanks to the development of extensive networks of clientelism and the closure of independent media.

There is some truth in each of these interpretations, and so the question about the legacy of Hugo Chávez is prone to heated debates. Any discussion on the socio-economic and socio-political heritage of his government should try to put the figure of Hugo Chávez into context. To do this, it is crucial to analyse the political evolution that Chávez experienced from his coming into power in 1998 to his death in 2013.

Like most countries of the Andean region, Venezuela experienced a serious crisis of democratic representation during the 1990s. Many reasons have been given for this, including insufficient economic growth, rising poverty, increasing income inequality, and last but certainly not least, corruption.

The ‘success’ of Venezuelan democracy from the 1960s to the 1980s relied on the consolidation of a two-party system, which in the long run ended up cementing the power of a cartel of elites that was far more interested in preserving its own interests and wealth than in economic redistribution and improving the quality of the democratic regime. When Hugo Chávez organized his failed coup d’état in 1992, he was mounting a rebellion against this cartel of elites, which was seen as highly illegitimate by the majority of the Venezuelan population.

After his release from jail in 1994, Chávez travelled across the country and began to build a loose network of sympathisers, organic intellectuals and political activists. With their help, he was able to construct a political platform centred on a simple but powerful message:

The people of our country have been robbed of their rightful sovereignty by a corrupt establishment! The time has come to rise up and regain it.

This populist message proved to be the key to his electoral success. Otherwise stated, Chávez’s rise was not only related to his charisma, but also – and mainly – to the fact that large sections of the Venezuelan population had and continue to have emotional and rational motives for adhering to the Manichean distinction of ‘the people versus the elite’ inherent to populism.

Oddly enough, many analysts forget that when Chávez won the presidential elections in 1998, his populist discourse did include references neither to anti-neoliberalism nor to radical socialism. Instead, the role model that he had in mind was that of Tony Blair’s Third Way. Chávez wanted to rebuild the economy by finding a new balance between the state and the free market.

How can we explain that in the end his government departed from this very idea of the Third Way and moved towards the ideology of the so-called ‘Socialism of the 21st century’? Three drivers of radicalization help to answer this question.

First, given that Chávez did not have a political party behind him, the main support base of his regime relied on the mobilization of grassroots constituencies. These were mainly poor people, who would gain from the social policies that Chávez began to implement once he came to power. Bolstered by the rising tide of international oil prices, Chávez was indeed able to implement a broad array of social policies that contributed to organize grassroots as a political counterweight to entrenched power structures. In this sense, there was a political logic behind the social policies implemented by Chávez: the more poor constituencies that backed the regime, the easier it was to mobilize them in order to push for the realization of reforms that could reduce the power of the cartel of elites that had dominated Venezuelan politics in the recent past.

Second, although there was no consensus within the opposition to Chávez as to how to deal with his political ascension, radical factions predominated and advocated different strategies that sought to destabilize the regime. Two of these strategies are worth mentioning: the support to the mobilization of a coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, and the organization of not only a general strike but also a takeover of the state-owned oil company PDVSA in 2003. Both strategies were extremely counterproductive. While the coup d’état failed and led to a purge of the armed forces, the general strike and takeover of PDVSA paved the way for a massive replacement of oil sector workers with loyalist supporters.

L-R: Hugo Chávez, Néstor Kirchner and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during a meeting in Granja do Torto, January 2006

Third, relations between the U.S. and Venezuela suffered an abrupt deterioration as George W. Bush assumed office in 2000. In fact, a few still question whether President Bush’s administration was involved in the coup attempt against Chávez in 2002. Furthermore, it was when Venezuela’s regime was depicted as part of the so-called ‘axis of evil’, Chávez had a fruitful opportunity to portray his political project as the battle of David against Goliath. In other words, the formation of the Chavista diplomacy interested in ushering other leftist populist forces across Latin America into power was directly related to the way in which the United States dealt with Chávez. The famous 2006 speech at the United Nations general assembly, in which Chávez described George W. Bush as the incarnation of the devil, must be understood against this background.

The rest of the story is well known. The more Chávez was attacked, from inside the country and from outside, the more radical became his populist discourse. He used the oil economy to give money and dignity not only to the poor in Venezuela, but also to international actors who were in favour of his political approach. While many have been the beneficiaries of Chávez’ generosity, it is the Castro brothers who have profited from Venezuela’s oil the most. It is not far-fetched to suggest that without the subsided oil from Venezuela, the Cuban dictatorship would have suffered a deep economic crisis with unforeseen consequences for the stability of the regime. This means that the Castro brothers are as worried as the Chavista constituencies about the result of the elections that will be held on April 14 of this year.

What lessons can be drawn from this short analysis? First and foremost, the political evolution of Chávez reveals that the radicalization of a populist movement is closely linked to the behaviour of their opponents. Just as the pejorative response of many liberal elites has nurtured the extremist rhetoric of the populist Tea Party movement in the U.S., the undemocratic means used by sectors of the old Venezuelan establishment and the government of George W. Bush to fight against Chávez were anything but beneficial. This is not a trivial point. Many well-intentioned activists and scholars tend to forget that the rise of populist forces has less to do with the emergence of a charismatic snake charmer, and more to do with social grievances that make the populist discourse appealing to large sectors of the population. Strategies seeking to deal with populism that do not put the populist forces into context, and are incapable of granting a certain level of legitimacy to their demands, are destined to fail.

About the Author:

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser holds a PhD from the Humboldt University of Berlin, has worked for the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB). He is the recipient of the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for a two-year research project on populism in Europe and Latin America, which he is currently undertaking at the Department of Politics of the University of Sussex. One of the outcomes of this project is the Cambridge University Press book “Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?” that he has edited with Cas Mudde. At the same time, he is working with Juan Pablo Luna on an edited volume on the right in contemporary Latin America which will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.