Elections in Chavez' Shadow:
Venezuela's Inescapable Past and Predictable Future
Photo : Wiki Commons
Venezuelan presidential elections will take place on April 14, the first in almost 20 years not to feature Hugo Chávez. Such is what the Economist calls Latin Americans’ “necrophiliac streak”, the next leader will be seen in the context of Chávez, just as Chávez can usefully be seen in the context of those before him: Venezuelan politics has recurrent themes.
Venezuela was ruled by almost exclusively by dictators until 1958, often authoritarian caudillo figures who played on a cult of personality. When democracy finally came, it became dominated by just two parties, Acción Democrática and COPEI. The parties worked closely together and when one was in government it gave the other a say. This meant both wanted to extend what came to be an exclusive system. Civil organizations belonged to one of the two parties with money distributed along party lines and the urban poor and middle classes were often neglected. After a financial crisis and austerity, and the Caracazo in 1989 (mass rioting and looting leading to the security services killing thousands), this democracy was seen as diseased with corruption and clientelism. On the back of this Chávez came into power in the 1999 election with broad support, particularly from the lower classes.
He was never, as some claim, a dictator, having stayed in power through three subsequent elections. Chávez pumped money from the oil industry into projects to improve the lives of the poor and notable successes include eradicating illiteracy and increasing citizenship. However, lots of money was wasted and spent in unaccountable ways – a 2011 Reuters investigation found that over half of public investment goes into secret funds he controlled. Chávez was also very authoritarian. According to Human Rights Watch the government filled the Supreme Court with supporters and the court “largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power, failing to uphold fundamental rights enshrined in Venezuela’s constitution” and the government showed “scant respect for democratic checks and balances.” However, Chávez made himself an idolatry figure for supporters. By the time he was on his deathbed, he resembled a caudillo figure of old. In the quality of the country's democracy there were also similarities to the dying days of the previous government, making it hard to look at its future too positively.
The presidential election is between Nicolás Maduro, acting president and Chávez’s chosen successor, and Henrique Capriles, who fought and lost against Chávez in the 2012 election. Perhaps talking a leaf out of Hugo’s libro, both have focused on the personal rather than the policy. Ideas about how to tackle a faltering economy, high inflation and high crime are lacking as the two make personal slurs against each other. The figure of Chávez looms large. A website, www.madurodice.com, measures the amount of times Maduro has mentioned Chávez: at the time of writing 5,822.
It looks like Maduro will win, helped not just by his association with Chávez (he calls himself Chávez’s son) but also by the benefits of being an incumbent, for example media bias (during the 2012 election campaign the Radio Nacional de Venezuela attacked Capriles for his Jewish heritage).However, he looks likely to be a weak imitator of his idol. He has only risen in popularity since being named heir; voters will be voting not for him, but for Chávez. Devoid of the latter’s personality and aura that helped to prolong the regime and keep the various chavista factions together, Maduro will probably struggle when he gets into power and has to forge his own course. Capriles, who modelled himself during the 2012 election campaign as someone who would be market-friendly but would use the state to reduce inequality, would probably be a better for Venezuelans; he would also restore some balance to the chavista dominance of public institutions.
Nevertheless, unlike up until a few generations ago at least Venezuelans can vote in 2013, even if they seem incapable of escaping the patterns of the country's political past.
(Read a longer version of this at my blog here)