The Political Afterlife of Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez has left a profound mark on Venezuela. But how much of his legacy will remain when he’s gone?

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

In Latin American politics, dying can be a shrewd career move. Just look at Simón Bolívar. During his lifetime his actual political accomplishments were decidedly mixed; his efforts to build a united South American republic ultimately gave way to disunion, dictatorship, and personal despair. But his demise made him far more popular than he had ever been in life. Today Colombians, Ecuadoreans, and Panamanians are all happy to consider him one of their own. And, in his native Venezuela, he is considered practically divine.

When it comes to worshiping at the altar of Bolívar, no one has ever been able to outdo President Hugo Chávez, the man who has singlehandedly dominated Venezuelan politics for the past 14 years, and exercised considerable influence over the rest of the region. But his recent disappearance to Cuba for medical treatment, and the lingering mystery surrounding his persistent cancer, has many South Americans wondering about his legacy. Can Chávez’s party — and his aspirations for international revolution — survive without him? What would chavismo without Chávez look like?

Recent Latin American history offers some clues. Bookending the spectrum of symbolic possibilities are two celebrated Argentinians with very different regional legacies: Juan Domingo Perón and Ernesto "Ché" Guevara.

President of Argentina from 1946 until 1955 (and again, briefly, in the early 1970s), Perón remains a powerful political force even today. Following a period of brutal military rule by those who overthrew Isabel, his widow and successor (not to be confused with his earlier wife, the famous Evita), a revitalized Perónist platform emerged that was led by original supporters of the former president. Argentina’s two most recent presidents have been Perónists, and Perón’s brand of corporate nationalism remains a core principle of the party today.

Meanwhile, the Marxist firebrand Guevara, although best known for his role in the 1958 Cuban Revolution, was very much a globalist. For twenty years until his violent death in Bolivia, he crisscrossed the globe fomenting armed revolution in dozens of individual countries. In death his memory became iconic, his image ubiquitous. The quintessential idealist martyr, Ché remains a powerful symbol but a relatively empty one: an ideological dead end. Following his demise, his closest allies back in Cuba were sidelined or purged. His policy priorities (such as assisting global Marxist revolution through violent guerilla movements) have since become not only irrelevant but almost entirely disconnected from the image of the man himself.

Throughout his long career, Chávez has mirrored both of these famous figures at various moments. Like Perón, Chávez has presented himself as the common man’s president, channeling streams of domestic discontent and class tension through his own larger-than-life personality. Yet Perónism was always a decidedly nationalistic movement, tailoring its brand of populism to unique characteristics of Argentinian national identity in ways the more globally minded Chávez has never seen fit to mimic.

True to the Guevara spirit, Chávez has chosen instead to push for international revolution first, while pursuing the interests of Venezuela second. In 1999, when mudslides leveled huge swaths of the Venezuelan coast, killing tens of thousands, Chávez eschewed offers of American aid on principle. And while ever-rising oil prices (crude was at $8 per barrel when Chávez was first elected) have allowed for greater domestic social spending, much of this wealth has likewise gone towards flashy (some say unnecessary) displays of international largesse.

Venezuela — a medium sized, middle-income country — has used petro-diplomacy to achieve a degree of international relevance unprecedented in its history. As Chávez himself mused in what may well come to be remembered as his farewell speech: "We have made strategic alliances as has never been done before. Venezuela in Mercosur, who would have thought? Venezuela in a strategic alliance with China, Russia, so many other countries…."

Yet the redirecting of state funds toward client regimes in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua (to say nothing of financing for leftwing candidacies in elections as far afield as Mexico and of generous gifts of oil and money to comparatively wealthy countries such as Argentina and even parts of the United States) have all proven highly controversial. Many Venezuelans, even from among Chávez’s inner circle, might prefer to introduce more Perónist priorities by focusing on domestic concerns such as unemployment, crime, and poverty.

Yet Chávez has used his recent choice of a successor to once again demonstrate his aspiration to a broader international legacy. Nicolás Maduro, his handpicked political heir, has impeccable Marxist credentials and close relationships within staunch Venezuelan allies such as Cuba. Until recently, Maduro had been only one of several candidates being discussed for the role, his chief rival being Diosdado Cabello: the current head of the National Assembly.

Cabello, while less ideologically "revolutionary," has greater support among crucial domestic constituencies such as the country’s armed forces and the so-called "Boligarchs," politically well-connected tycoons who have made millions under the regime. The snub to Cabello came as a surprise to many, since he had been regarded as something of a favorite for the role. It is rumored that he might not be brushed aside so easily.

In a sense, the political rivalry between these men illustrates chavismo‘s divergent strains: Cabello, the Perón-style pragmatist, versus Maduro, the "Ché-vista." While the latter may dominate at present, the underlying tension between the two camps cannot help but cause division. The socialist ideologues and internationalists who make up Maduro’s base of support seem highly dependent upon Chávez himself for continued influence. In contrast, Cabello’s supporters are almost certain to remain influential regardless. The rich and the well armed are always influential.

Venezuela’s current constitution (the 26th in its history) has only been around only since 1999, and the departure of Chávez would mark the first presidential transition since it was introduced. Many terms and procedures remain poorly defined, and the potential for jockeying and for creative interpretation is high. Yet any potential infighting over the transition will have to wait. As long as Chávez lives, chavismo remains united and subject to his personal caprice, and the country’s highly politicized Supreme Court has proven ready to absolve an unending stream of constitutional violations, buying time in hopes the patient may yet return and recover.

And return he might. This week both his brother Argenis and Bolivian president Evo Morales, a close ally, suggested that El Comandante’s return to Caracas may be imminent. Even if he does make it back home, however, the writing may well be on the wall. If rumors of the seriousness of his illness are true, his reappearance is likely to be ephemeral: A short-term ploy to stabilize Maduro’s position (both publicly and within the party) rather then a first step towards eventual recovery.

Come what may, domestically the party may yet be able to trudge along in slow decline for a period — perhaps eventually splitting into several independent parties that sporadically cooperate (much like the Venezuelan opposition does now). Yet without Chávez, the international side of the revolution — on which he has staked much of his legacy — cannot last.

Lacking his charisma, his connections, and his personal rapport with the people, his successors will have no choice but to prioritize the Perónist side of the equation by playing to their domestic base or else risk losing everything. Henrique Capriles, who lost the 2012 election to Chávez after a strong showing, could yet prove competitive if new elections are called following the president’s death as stipulated by the constitution. Indeed, in the past, Capriles has polled much better than either Maduro or Cabello.

As it is, chavismo would seem an unlikely candidate for a Perónist-style political revival. Because it was so brief, Perón’s final term after his return from exile left much unfulfilled promise and relatively little track record for posterity to scrutinize. Not so the Bolivarian Revolution. By stressing a deep, personal connection between the president and the voters rather than a coherent set of party policies, chavismo has straddled an ever-widening gulf between oratory and practice. Though drawing heavily on socialist imagery and rhetoric, Chávez has actually presided over growing inequality, and Venezuelan society remains highly entrepreneurial, individualistic, and consumerist.  

As for Chávez himself, he will remain an iconic figure internationally but a largely symbolic one, another heroic martyr in the vein of Guevara or Chile’s Salvador Allende. Perhaps his stature might someday even rise to Bolivarian proportions: A universally hailed cultish folk hero like his idol, whose actual policies few remember, but who is claimed as their own by movements of every ideological stripe.

Failing global revolution, I suspect Chávez would be okay with that.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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