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Hugo Chávez Frías died at age 58 on March 5. He was the dominant personality in Latin American politics over the past fifteen years. First, with the failed coup of 1992, which raised questions about the compatibility of neoliberal, free market economic policies with democracy; then, with his landslide election to the Venezuelan presidency in December 1998, he put himself at the leading edge of what has been called the “Pink Wave” – the rise of leftists to power after years in the wilderness.
Chávez has to share some of that “glory” with Brazil’s former President Lula, and his career was a reflection, not just a cause, of Latin America’s left turn. Still, he helped pull Latin America farther left than Lula could possibly have done alone and, backed by oil export power, he took initiatives that are unlikely to disappear simply because of his passing.
His most significant accomplishments at home are several. His leadership was indispensable to accomplishing the reincorporation of the masses of Venezuelans into politics and reducing poverty. He recovered national sovereignty over the subsoil wealth, the oil.
Internationally, Chávez was the architect of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an economic integration scheme that really is an alternative to the laissez faire, neoliberal model promoted by the U.S. He championed the emergence of several new security and economic cooperation organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the international stage, he provided crucial leadership to revitalize OPEC, while at the same time providing an energy lifeline to many countries – and to some poor communities in the United States – with discounts on Venezuelan oil.
While he accomplished a significant redistribution of the oil wealth, significantly lowered poverty rates, and introduced new participatory institutions into Venezuela, he at times polarized the country with Manichean rhetoric and amassed more power in his own hands than is healthy for democracy. High rates of violence, a dysfunctional justice system, and corruption remain significant problems. His absence will now test the viability of the new participatory institutions that function well in some parts of the country, but struggle in others.
What is next? His chosen successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, should win the snap election (within 30 days) easily. The greater challenge facing the Bolivarian Revolution is consolidating the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). That party must now develop the institutional capability to choose candidates and leaders, formulate programs, and resolve internal conflicts without the personal (and personalist) authority of the populist caudillo. This can happen – the experience of Peronism in Argentina is proof.
Another big challenge will be oil policy. Will oil minister Rafael Ramírez, strongly committed to OPEC and national control over the industry, keep his job? Can the country cut its spiraling domestic consumption? Can an extractive industry operate compatibly with those progressive provisions in the Bolivarian Constitution that enhance the rights of indigenous people?
Chávez steadfastly and effectively defended Venezuela’s right to have economic and political relations with other nations on its own terms. In some instances, he went beyond exercising that sovereign right to more a questionable embrace of leaders whose record on political pluralism, rights, economic inclusion and democracy contradict the Bolivarian ideals that he espoused.
The Chávez legacy is likely to be debated as long as the history of the Venezuelan nation is written.
Chávez’s political opposition faces challenges of its own. Chávez was a point of unity not just for the left in Venezuela, but for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). The MUD probably will unite around the candidacy of Henrique Capriles again, but should he lose, any number of ambitious politicians will try to move to the front of the coalition.
Capriles has been deft in commenting on Chávez’s illness and more recently on his death. He expressed condolences and carefully avoided offending the sensibilities of the admirers of Chávez. However, in the eastern, affluent suburbs, noisy celebrations marked the announcement of Chávez’s passing. Such ostentatious insensitivity to the feelings of the majority only make it harder for Capriles to convince less committed Chávez voters, whom he needs to attract, that the MUD can be trusted not to dismantle the policies from which they benefit.
Chávez’s legacy in Venezuela is likely to be debated as long as historians try to write about his life and times. Whenever Venezuelans are asked, “What do you think of Chávez?” the answer will tell you something about their political views. For now, he has left behind his earthly pursuits and stepped into the realm of mythology.