The Hugo Chavez Legacy

Prime Minister Harper’s message to the Venezuelan people following the death of Hugo Chavez was curt.  Essentially, it amounted to “good riddance”.  Chavez was a galvanizing figure who commanded faint praise in many quarters.  But it’s one thing to relish the demise of a pesky irritant.  It’s another thing entirely to miss the broader picture of the Chavez phenomenon and what his regime represented in many quarters.  And it’s that subtlety that was missing in the Canadian government’s reaction to Chavez’s death.  It appears to be missing in the conduct of most of the government’s foreign policy.

At the most superficial level it’s easy to conclude that Chavez was no Bolivar, Lenin or Castro.  He used Venezuela’s massive oil wealth to subsidize gigantic aspirations for his country.  That same wealth bought him international allies among some of his neighbours, allowing for the emergence of his ‘Bolivarian Alliance’ (ALBA), whose most significant members were Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, in addition to Venezuela.  But his erratic economic policies drove out foreign investment, eroded Venezuela’s economic base and political institutions, and left a potentially wealthy country in precarious circumstances, with massive debts and a deep fiscal hole.  And it stimulated the exodus of the educated class—to Canada’s benefit. All of this has been grist to the media mills for years.

Whatever his failings, Chavez represented in a visible, extreme way a type of political discourse that resonates among the less fortunate citizens of Latin American countries now trying to escape the shackles of chronic poverty. 

But Chavez rose to power for a reason.  He won elections and captured the popular vote.  Even in a debased Venezuelan democracy, outside observers could not discount his appeal.  His populist rhetoric and chaotic mix of socialism and populism touched nerves throughout a region in which millions had been left impoverished by waves of economic reform, inspired by the neo-liberal ‘Washington consensus’ and the later emphasis on the panacea of free trade.  Those reforms stimulated foreign investment and economic growth, particularly in extractive industries, in many countries.  But in certain states, and certainly in Venezuela, the price has been massive social and economic inequality, with benefits to the few.  In addition to leaving huge swaths of poverty, economic ‘modernization’ has also created a Potemkin village of model governments in the region, ostensibly democratic in form and orientation, but often oligarchic, kleptocratic and increasingly ineffective in addressing the day-to-day concerns of the region’s less favoured peoples, particularly among the indigenous.  In truth, Chavez did not trigger polarization in the region; he was simply the populist mirror through which the sad realities of much of the region in decades past were reflected.

In a different age, Chavez might have developed a more coherent persona.  But the Marxist era was ending.  Overtly authoritarian governments were out of order.  Military dictatorships were frowned upon, even though he tried unsuccessfully to create one.  He was stuck with re-tooling what he had, fashioning an unwieldy alliance of military supporters, Leftist sympathizers, pro-Cuban authoritarians, and a large group of sycophants and opportunists, under a vague, socialist Bolivarian vision in which talk was easier than action.  Many of his international supporters—among them Americans Sean Penn, Michael Moore and Oliver Stone—saw hope and promise in his aspirations to address chronic problems of under-development and poverty.   Other supporters, in Zimbabwe, Iran and Libya, were little more than obvious friends of convenience.

In the end, a cult of leadership that addressed some of Venezuela’s problems but played to the anxieties and despairs of the less fortunate was not enough.  During fourteen years in power there was a sharp breakdown in public institutions such as the judiciary, police and prisons, as well as the country’s diplomatic service.  Venezuela’s democratic institutions, fragile to begin with, were further constrained, and the national media were cowed and subdued.  He should be given credit for some impressive gains, in the health and education sectors, and in pulling a substantial portion of Venezuela’s most disadvantaged out of poverty.  But some victories were achieved through debt and deals that appear to be unsustainable over the long run.  Although he left the country much improved in terms of the most basic social indicators of human development, Venezuela remains mired in economic crisis and a calamitous public security situation.

The Economist drew the lesson that Chavez had “squandered” the opportunity to use the oil boom of the past decade to catapult Venezuelan infrastructure and services into world-class rankings.  But this is a silly critique, akin to asking the Mafia for greater transparency in its business dealings.  And it misses a larger and much more important point.  Plainly put, whatever his failings, Chavez represented in a visible, extreme way a type of political discourse that resonates among the less fortunate citizens of Latin American countries now trying to escape the shackles of chronic poverty.  They aspire to having governing institutions that speak to them, and that are committed to tackling their problems.  They also want what Chavez tried to give them, namely, a positive optimistic vision, anchored in their hopes for a better future.  Astute observers, including Jean Chretien, recognized the significance of the phenomenon, even if they knew that Chavez fell well short in terms of rising to the challenges.

It’s too easy to dismiss Chavez for his personal idiosyncrasies and his mismanagement of what should be a wealthy country.  But in looking at those who mourned his death, and at the wider Chavez phenomenon, it merits asking the question:  who speaks for those people now?

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