By Joe Armenta
Latin America’s so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ was halted in December when its most outspoken leader, Hugo Chavez, was hospitalized for cancer treatment in Havana, Cuba. While the state of the four-term-winning President of Venezuela remains unclear, concerns regarding his health highlight his success at leading a new era of regional politics in the western hemisphere. Since coming to power, Chavez’s rule has led observers along a roller coaster of analytical inquiry regarding the influence he has over some of the region’s leaders. Today, however, many are left wondering what a post-Chavez world might look like.
The Rise of Chavez
Chavez gained regional prominence following his involvement in a failed military coup in 1993. After being released from prison the following year, he journeyed to many left-leaning countries in the region promoting a political agenda named after the nineteenth-century independence leader, Simon Bolivar. The Bolivarian Movement, as it came to be known, possessed two main characteristics. The first advocated for greater regional sovereignty and resistance against modern imperialism while the second called for greater social inclusion among the large populace consisting of the region’s poor.
This message resonated with many throughout region, as it was an alternative to the main political-economic discourse of the time. During the mid-90s, Latin America was just beginning to recover from the debt crisis of 1974 and the subsequent ‘lost decade’ of the 80s, in which several countries experienced stagnant and declining growth rates. As Chavez geared up to run for president, his Bolivarianism counteracted Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics. Whereas the latter form of thought at the time was largely associated with neo-liberalism, America, and murderous autocrats, Chavez was a populist. He combined 1950s and 60s leftist revolutionary thought with the prospects of twenty-first century democratic inclusion.
The process of coalition building began shortly after Chavez’s election in 1998. As early as 2001, he stated, “We from Caracas continue promoting the Bolivarian idea of achieving the political integration of our states and our republics. A Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean states, why not?” While he spent much of his first term fighting domestic political battles, the constitutional referendum of 2003 afforded him the opportunity to expand his influence to other states in the region. In 2004 he signed a bilateral trade agreement with Cuba and created the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA). By 2009, the treaty had incorporated six more countries into its realm.
During this time, Chavez’s critique of western powers became more verbose. After surviving an attempted military coup in 2002, Chavez became widely skeptical of the Bush administration. He emerged as a critic of United States foreign involvement and denounced the invasion of Iraq, criticizing it for failing to obtain United Nation approval. In 2006, Chavez gained national attention when he referred to Former President George W. Bush as “the devil” in front of the UN General Assembly.
Our Friend Hugo
To fully understand Chavez’s role in Latin America, two countries are to be examined: Cuba and Nicaragua.
On a macro level, Cuba and Venezuela’s mutually beneficial relationship demonstrates how Chavez has been able to use his country’s large oil reserves to build alliances. Venezuela essentially floats on top of a sea oil. Data collected by oil conglomerate British Petroleum shows that it possesses the largest oil deposits in the world, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. This is an anomaly in Latin America, which is quickly industrializing, yet has very little oil reserves.
Chavez uses this resource blessing in a peculiar way. Venezuela’s 2003 constitution guarantees a right to healthcare for all of its citizens, yet has very little medical services to fill the demand. Cuba, on the other hand, possesses an excess supply of doctors due to its generous education system. Thus, the two countries engage in an exchange in which Cuba receives around $3.5 billion a year in direct oil subsidies and sends Venezuela about 40,000 doctors. Today three-quarters of Cuba’s oil consumption surmounts from trade with Venezuela.
Similar trade agreements have been extended to beneficiaries of ALBA, including the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua where Venezuela “financ[es] 50 percent of the value the exports under preferential conditions.”
The Antonio Lenin Fonseca Public Hospital in Managua, Nicaragua demonstrates how Chavez has extended his influence on a micro level. While bloodstained walls, overcrowded hallways, and broken windows are a commonplace, the hospital is equip with some of the most advanced modern medical machinery—complements of Mr. Chavez. Doctors may be underpaid and basic surgical utensils may be rationed, but patients are able to receive brain imaging from an MRI free of charge.
Some of Chavez’s closest allies are also some of Latin America’s poorest countries. As is the case in Nicaragua, Chavez often provides political favors on behalf of his oil-rich nation. This often comes in the form of aid for social projects like supplying hospitals and classrooms with materials. In return, he receives international backing from leaders throughout the world. Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, is so fond of Chavez that he named a district in the country’s capital “Hugo Chavez.”
Those who have been monitoring the impact that Chavez’s health on the region stress the importance that Chavez himself plays in the maintenance of the Bolivarian coalition. As Phil Gunson, a Venezuela analyst for The Economist, explains, “Chavez has made it his business to hollow out the institutions. What I mean by that is that he’s concentrated power, as much as he possibly can, in his own hands. He’s become the ultimate arbitrator of every thing in the county… Now in the absence of Mr. Chavez, there is no one else, certainly it isn’t [Vice President] Mr. Maduro, who would be capable of doing that.”
In short, Chavez’s strongman politics leaves the regional alliance vulnerable to break down without his presence. Chavez was always at the forefront of coalition building between nations. He was the one who established treaties and trade rules, he was the one that established friends and foes and he was the one vocalizing the cause of the Revolution to the outside world. It is hard to imagine how this legacy will persevere without his authority.
Yet, it should also be noted that Latin America is not the same place as it was 10 years ago. Many recent developments in the region have shifted regional alliance structures among some of the powers at hand. Explosive growth in Colombia, Peru, and Panama encourage a greater connection with the outside world. Gradual economic liberal policies are now the generally accepted norm, as opposed to Chavez proto-autarkic practices. People are progressing into the twenty-first century with open hands, instead of the closed fist of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Furthermore, Venezuela is not as powerful as it was in the previous decade. While controlling the leading oil reserves grants the country some influence, its industry has been plagued by declining production in the recent years due to the lack of incentives provided by the state. When dealing with trade terms between more developed nations, such as its recent acceptance into the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), it becomes apparent that Venezuela is no longer the commanding party. As one writer quipped in The Economist, “Brazil and Argentina presumably hope to increase their exports to Venezuela. After years of currency appreciation and rampant cost increases unmatched by improvements in productivity, manufacturers in both countries find it hard to compete in world markets. Venezuela is one of the few economies sufficiently badly run to make their products look like a good deal.”
For countries like Cuba and Nicaragua, a post-Chavez world seems bleak, as they will have to make severe changes in their foreign policy to meet the loss of their generous ally. But for the rest of Latin America, a world without Chavez will have little effect on policy choices. Instead, what will remain is the legacy of one of the region’s last revolutionaries.
Photo by Alex Lanz