If you asked someone in a European street if they knew the names of the Uzbek president, Saudi king or Danish prime minister — the leaders of three countries similar in size, population or wealth to Venezuela — the probable answer would be no. But ask about Hugo Chávez — even before his death made front page news and 55 heads of state attended his funeral — and the likely answer would be yes.
Chávez did not always seem destined for fame. A Venezuelan political analyst predicted during his first presidential campaign in 1998 that he would be forgotten by the next election (1). The conservative candidate, Irene Sáez, a former Miss Universe, exemplified the indifference of the elite towards the poor. In less than 20 years the Venezuelan economy had shrunk faster than anywhere else in the region, and poverty levels had risen from 17% to nearly 50%. Sáez’s programme of continuing the same policies did not appeal. Her political response was to put her hair in a bun, but Chávez won the election. For many, it was a surprise, yet the signs were there.
At the end of the 1990s, the political map of Latin America was blue, or blueish. In Mexico, Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) had just sold off more than 110 state-owned companies. In Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) welcomed foreign capital, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had found a star pupil in the Argentina of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), eager to anticipate its slightest request. The Venezuelan presidential campaign had only just begun before the second Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, in April 1998: press photos showed US president Bill Clinton and the beaming faces of Latin American leaders delighted to have agreed to set up a free trade zone from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), by 2005.
Thirteen countries in Europe had left-of-centre governments, but the revolution was still a long way off. The French Socialist Lionel Jospin championed privatisation; the German Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder brought in reforms that made him the darling of the European right; Britain’s Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, promoted a “third way” that made him the true heir of Margaret Thatcher, according to the foundation set up by the former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar (2).
But revolution was rumbling in Latin America, where the influence of the Chicago school economists had long been felt. It started in Caracas in 1989, when a structural adjustment programme concocted by the IMF caused riots, and more than 3,000 were killed in the police reaction, the Caracazo. Three years later there were two coup attempts in Venezuela, one led by Chávez.
Popular and indigenous uprisings in Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico’s Chiapas State were part of a phase of activism predicated on the idea that it was not possible to extricate democracy from neoliberalism. The only solution was to “change the world without taking power” (to quote the title of philosopher John Holloway’s 2002 book), even if it meant leaving the field open to the right.
Chávez initially shared some of these doubts, later saying that his team knew going down the parliamentary road could turn out to be disastrous for them, that they could be trapped by the system. Not everyone in his entourage had abandoned the idea of taking power by force. But then they realised that middle class exasperation with the system could not only win Chávez the election but allow him to reform the constitution, and avoid the traps. Twenty years earlier in Chile, Salvador Allende had also turned his back on armed struggle. But as Chilean intellectual Marta Harnecker said, “the Christian Democrats still carried a lot of weight. Not only among the middle and upper classes, but among the workers and peasants. That partly explains why People’s Unity, the coalition that supported Allende, never suggested moving towards a constituent assembly,” making do instead with “using existing legislation while trying to find gaps in the law” (3).
In Venezuela, Chávez — a former lieutenant colonel — could count on the support of a large part of the armed forces, whose officers were not all upper class (which they generally were in the rest of Latin America). It was this that led to the “revolution” declared when he was elected, more than his timid political programme (a critique of “savage capitalism” inspired, according to Chávez, by Blair’s third way).
His first government also briefly retained Maritza Izaguirre as finance minister, a post she had held in the neoliberal government of Rafael Caldera. In his first term, Chávez did little more than bring back measures from the 1960s and 1970s, such as free education and healthcare. But as academic Steve Ellner pointed out in Rethinking Venezuelan Politics (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2008), when previous progressive leaders had brought in social and economic reforms, they had done so without contributing to a sense of popular empowerment that would have unleashed radicalisation and scared off powerful groups. Chávez took the opposite approach.
Under the new constitution of 1999, social programmes were no longer imposed by ministerial bureaucrats, but implemented with the active participation of the people. It was probably this, more than Chávez’s ideology, that enraged the elite. They quickly realised that making the democratic ideal political again would weaken their control of the state and the oil wealth.
Next came a coup, the oil industry brought to a standstill by its senior managers and engineers, and an election boycott. The opposition’s attitude illustrated the intransigence of the middle classes, determined to refuse any concessions, but it also spurred on the Chávez programme. According to sociologist Gregory Wilpert, every failed attempt of the opposition to depose Chávez ended up giving him and his movement more power and thus more leeway to pursue more radical policies (Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Verso, 2007).
For the media, Chávez embodied the radical heart of the wave that brought progressive leaders to power in Latin America in the 2000s (4). But the former conservative Uruguayan president Julio María Sanguinetti regarded the political shift — more pink than red — not so much as a revolutionary break with the past, as a “laborious, contradictory and relentless movement of the left toward the centre” (5). The subversive charge of terms like “nationalisation”, “sovereignty” and “anti-imperialism”, which Chávez made popular again, reflected his own ambition as much as the left’s slow ideological drift.
The transformation in Chávez was striking though. During his 1998 campaign, he had frequent meetings with Citibank, J P Morgan and Morgan Stanley to try to calm their fears. But 10 years later he was saying: “Our fight is an expression of class struggle” (speech, 30 November 2008). The day after he was first elected, he was in the television studios of the country’s richest man, Gustavo Cisneros, galvanising investors. The Caracas stock exchange rose 40% in two days. But in June 2011 The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was now Chávez’s health problems that boosted the markets. In 2001 Venezuela’s national economic and social development plan had talked about “creating an emerging class of employers” and ensuring “a climate of confidence for foreign investors”. By 2005 the document was obsolete as Chávez announced that the country was in search of “21st-century socialism”.
The career of most political leaders goes in the opposite direction, which may be why Chávez attracted such interest. Just as the French prime minister Lionel Jospin was saying that “the state cannot do everything”, Venezuela was rehabilitating the state, demanding majority control of projects exploiting natural resources (an approach emulated by other Latin American countries), and taking control of the central bank and monetary policy. While Cuba was creating golf courses to attract tourists, Venezuela was requisitioning them to house the homeless.
The Chávez administration halved the 2003 level of poverty and reduced destitution by 70%. It tackled inequality, making Venezuela the most egalitarian country in the region. It led the way in strong diplomacy, contributing to the failure of the FTAA and helping to create regional structures based on solidarity, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or on the wish to break away from the US, such as the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Its help with paying back Argentina’s debt and support for Bolivia’s healthcare system, among other programmes, meant Venezuela was soon “replacing the IMF in terms of the main source of funding in the region” (El Nuevo Herald, 1 March 2007). The French financial daily Les Echos (7 March 2013) wrote that Chávez had “squandered” oil revenue on such programmes (revenues that Venezuela did not simply cash in but increased, by rejoining OPEC to raise prices).
We cannot ignore Venezuela’s many difficulties. There was the impossibility of relying on the state apparatus inherited from the former regime, or of replacing it with enough loyal professionals. As British sociologist Ralph Miliband observed in the 1970s, “governments bent on revolutionary change cannot reasonably expect the vaunted ‘neutrality’ of traditional administrative elites to apply to them, let alone count on the dedicated and enthusiastic support for their policies which they would require” (6).
So they try to construct a new state, parallel with the old, but destined to overturn it. According to Michael Lebowitz, an adviser to Chávez, there were two states — the old state that workers captured, and the emerging new state based on workers’ councils and communal councils (7). The two needed to coexist and interact. Venezuela needed to start with the old state and the transition to socialism as an organic system was a transition to the new state (8). While this plan did allow Venezuela’s “missions” to be set up, with great success, it also increased bureaucracy, fed corruption and created a new elite, the “Boli-bourgeoisie”, close to Chávez and as mercenary as the previous elite.
Chávez was authoritarian and sometimes reprimanded critics by telling them: “You’re not speaking to just anybody, you’re speaking to the president.” This attitude encouraged the personalisation of power, counter to the proclaimed ideal of mass participation. His death may have ended this problem, but there remain the insecurity (9) and the dubious international alliances with Belarus, Iran, Libya and Syria.
The main problems though were linked to the economy, trying to diversify an economy heavily dependent on subsidies from oil revenue, using oil revenue — one Venezuelan commentator compared this to “changing a tyre while the car is moving”. In 1973 US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger justified the coup against Allende by saying that when it was a matter of choosing between the economy and democracy, it was the economy that must be saved. Sometimes Chávez made the opposite choice, but should we blame him for that?