By Taylor Marvin
Over the course of his presidency Hugo Chávez articulated grand ambitions to help Venezuela’s vast underclass. But today, despite the lofty rhetoric, it is clear that Chávez did little to build a sustainable future for Venezuela. It is true that poverty declined and average incomes rose during Chávez’s tenure. However, it is unclear how much of this progress is due to Chávez’s vaunted anti-poverty programs and how much stems from exogenous economic growth, or if alternative programs would have been more effective. But despite any positive benefits of the Chávez government’s anti-poverty efforts, the failures of the regime are clear. In spite of years of record oil export revenues, Venezuelans continue to suffer from a crippled and dysfunctional economy, decaying public infrastructure, ballooning budget deficits, endemic urban violence and an unaccountable police force that commits one of every five crimes. But worse is the legacy of Chávez’s unprecedented consolidation of state power into himself, a consolidation that leaves post-Chávez Venezuela bereft of not only a Presidente, but also without the public institutions his government systematically dismantled.
Hugo Chávez wasn’t just Venezuela’s president; instead, he was the bedrock upon which the entire edifice of the state rested. Writing in Foreign Policy, Peter Wilson quotes a mourner on the streets of Caracas: “What’s going to happen to us now? Chávez was Venezuela.” This anguish isn’t only an expression of the very-real grief many Venezuelans feel at Chávez’s passing, but is also a reflection of the problems facing Venezuela’s post-Chávez future. With Chávez gone, it’s unclear how much of Venezuela’s governing structure he leaves behind.
Critics have accused Chávez of buying popularity with oil wealth. This is an exaggeration. While massive oil revenues were integral to social campaigns and subsidies that established his base of popular legitimacy, social spending was not all that Chávez offered the urban and rural poor that were the foundation of Chavismo. Instead, the gift Chávez offered supporters – chavistas – was himself: an assertive government embodied in a charismatic leader that reflected their own lives and desires.
Like all populists, Hugo Chávez was a performer. Chávez presented himself as a tireless fighter for the poor and the legacy of Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, which he perceived as abandoned by subsequent governments. Chávez expressed his devotion to Venezuelans in almost religious terms. “Give me your cross [Jesus], your thorns so that I may bleed,” Chávez publicly stated less than a year before his death, “but give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people. Do not take me yet.” It’s always difficult to discern where a populist’s genuine empathy for the marginalized ends and a performance finely crafted for political gain begins. But underneath the rhetorical excess Chávez exuded a real connection to ordinary Venezuelans previous democratic leaders had not.
In turn, many poor Venezuelans were legitimately devoted to Chávez and the movement he embodied. Unlike previous democratically elected leaders who represented the remote elite, Chávez spoke directly to Venezuela’s poor, his primary constituency. His marathon weekly talk show, Hello, Mr. President, allowed Chávez to leverage his natural charm and maniac energy to market himself to, and earn the loyalty of, the poor. In a highly diverse country where power was often restricted to light-skinned Venezuelans, many of the poor and underprivileged – not unreasonably – strongly personally identified with the darker skinned Chávez and believe that he would represent their interest in a way previous leaders would not.
In addition to his publicly vaunted devotion to the poor – and the committed ideological support it cemented – Hugo Chávez also expressed an attractive and legitimizing narrative of a strong, belligerent Venezuela. In addition to the support populist leaders’ bellicose expressions of national strength universally draw, this belligerence gained traction from the dependency theory-based popular narrative that Latin American countries, rich in natural resources, are poor solely because their wealth has been stolen by outside imperialists. Chávez made this devotion to anti-imperialist rhetoric an integral part of his populist persona. Whether Chávez’s theatrical belligerence was directed against the United States – “the devil came here yesterday, and it still smells of sulfur today” he famously said of George W. Bush at the UN — or neighboring Colombia – “I’ll send some Sukhois,” Chávez notably threatened during a crisis, referencing Venezuela’s modern, Russian-supplied Air Force – Chávez’s focus on nefarious foreign threats allowed him to both unify domestic audiences around a common enemy and present Venezuela as a world power that attracted attention far beyond its actual influence. More practically, this rhetorical focus also provided a convenient scapegoat for the government’s domestic failures.
A populist to the core, for Chávez expression was always more important than substance. While his medical missions and gasoline subsidies certainly did help the urban poor, it’s also certainly true that more rigorously designed anti-poverty programs like the ones pursued by other South American governments could have fought poverty far more effectively. Chávez social spending was profligate enough to grow the deficit, but was ultimately devoted to furthering his own political success, not sustainably growing Venezuela’s human capital; an epically nearsighted misuse of a likely transient period of high oil prices. This erratic mismanagement extended to the wider economy. During his tenure Chávez demonstrated little interest in growing the Venezuelan economy beyond its distorting and unsustainable dependence on petroleum exports, leading to unstable economic growth and inflation.
However, Chávez’s true legacy isn’t his economic mismanagement. Instead, Chávez will be most remembered for his systematic dismantling of Venezuela’s social and political institutions in pursuit of concentrating his own power. Unlike many other Latin American states, from the late-1950s until the 1980s Venezuela benefited from a flawed but reasonably stable democracy dominated by an institutionalized two-party system . While Venezuela’s oil revenue – which ballooned in the oil-shocked 1970s – impeded the development of a wider sustainable economy and fueled corruption, it also provided the funds to partially insulate the Venezuelan state from instability. In contrast to its neighbors, for most of Venezuela’s late-20th century history the country was mercifully free from the civil war and frequent military coups that characterized the wider continent.
Upon gaining power Chávez began a long campaign to dismantle these governing institutions. To Chávez, independent institutions were a political threat because they represented patronage channels he did not directly control. As veteran Venezuela watcher Francisco Toro relates, pre-Chávez Venezuelan politics was dominated by a complex patronage system that distributed state oil revenues down through party and state middlemen. While this system was massively inefficient and corrupt, it did, however, generally preserve public institutions. But in the political framework of Hugo Chávez’s brand of populism, these channels were simply competition. Maintaining Chávez’s ability to win elections required dismantling this system by removing the middlemen of the patronage networks and replacing them with, in Toro’s words, an imagined personal relationship between Chávez himself and his followers.
All aspects of the Venezuelan state were subsumed in service of this relationship. In the words of political scientist Peter Smith, Chávez “was revising the rules of the game in order to perpetuate his rule”; self-serving revisions extended to all aspects of Venezuelan society. While Chávez avoided crossing into outright authoritarianism and suffered occasional setbacks, his damage to the independence of Venezuela’s civil institutions was severe. Despite the opposition of his embattled political opponents, Chávez’s disregard for constitutional limits on power and cult of personality decayed the rule of law and hard-fought democratic institutions. Venezuela’s historically stable two party system vanished in favor of a new, chaotic order dominated by Chávez himself. Media, and especially television,became an instrument of the state, bringing Chávez’s charisma into Venezuela’s homes. The wider economy decayed as oil exports, which unlike the market economy could be easily controlled by Chávez’s regime, fueled the state, and Chávez’s unpredictable nationalizations in non-natural resource sectors inflicted major damage on the private economy and foreign investment.
When Chávez himself became the sole remaining institution in Venezuelan society, loyalty to the state became synonymous with loyalty to Chávez himself, keeping Chávez’s hands on the remaining patronage channels. For all of his devotion to aiding the poor, the Bolivarian Revolution’s social programs were primarily political. Instead of expanding social services in a systemic manner, Chávez’s oil-funded public works projects were distributed in an ad hoc web of patronage that traced back to Chávez himself, not the state. “The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ indeed provided the urban poor with services they previously lacked,” journalist Michael Reid writes, “but it did so in a clintelistic fashion, in return for political loyalty.” While Chávez’s programs did provide for the poor, they didn’t empower them. Instead, they simply transferred the poor’s dependence from the wider state to Chávez himself.
Hugo Chávez’s destruction of public institutions in favor of charismatic populism isn’t unique to Venezuela. In Argentina, national institutions’ decay – which began in earnest after a 1930 military coup – accelerated under the rule of Juan Perón, who valued his own personal appeal to Argentina’s masses over any consistent governing philosophy. Under Perón the civil service itself was partially incorporated into the ruling party, an unsustainable dynamic partially responsible for Argentina’s continuing economic and political instability. Other Latin American populists have followed similar paths to the consolidation of power. Indeed, Chávez’s deliberate decay of Venezuela’s institutions was mild compared to the region’s gallery of brutal military dictators. But what makes Chávez’s tenure unique is, as always with Venezuela, oil. Other Latin American nations have been vulnerable to institution degradation at the hands of autocratic leaders because the rents derived from centralized natural resource extraction makes tax revenue-enabling institutions and markets unnecessary for funding the state. But the sheer scale of Venezuela’s oil revenue, comparable only to Russia and the Middle East, set Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution apart.
Of course, subsuming the institutions of the state into a single man is fundamentally unsustainable, because all men die. Now that Chávez is gone, his populistic legacy leaves neither a durable autocratic state or the public institutions necessary for a return to full democracy or economic growth beyond the petroleum sector. Chávez’s political allies and anointed heir appear set on continuing the brand of charismatic populism he perfected. No matter the direction Venezuelan politics goes, the post-Chávez era’s legacy of institutional decay will likely negatively shape Venezuela for years to come.