What Next for Venezuela, After Chávez?
Hugo Chávez speaks to supporters protesting the US’s expanding military presence in Colombia, November 2009. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Whatever his flaws, and they were many, Hugo Chávez was a larger-than-life figure who treated ordinary Venezuelans with a rare degree of respect, admiration and love. This is why millions will mourn his passing. But as his body lies in state, Venezuelans must now confront the question: What next?
The answer, in part, will be known within thirty days of his death, the window of time in which Venezuela must hold a presidential election. The race will pit Vice President (and now interim President) Nicolás Maduro against Henrique Capriles Radonski, whom Chávez defeated by an eleven-point margin last October. In light of the emotional outpouring triggered by Chávez’s death, the strong showing by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the December gubernatorial elections and, not least, the high level of satisfaction Venezuelans have shown with the policies enacted by Chávez, Maduro will probably triumph. But it is unclear what a Maduro presidency will look like. “Having spent his political life in the shadow of Chávez and without having shown any really independent opinions, it is not entirely clear who Maduro is,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, rose through the ranks of Chavismo. He was elected to the National Assembly in 2000, became its speaker in 2005 and was appointed foreign minister in 2006. He held that post until last October, when Chávez named him vice president. Above all, Maduro is seen as a Chávez loyalist. But it’s not clear what that means now that Chávez is gone.
The overriding imperative for Maduro, assuming he’s elected, will be to maintain Chavista unity. Given his lack of charisma, and the existence of quite distinct (if unofficial) factions within the PSUV, this will be no easy task. Maduro is unlikely to rock the boat by proposing any sweeping changes, at least for the foreseeable future. Since policies now in place have given Venezuelans free healthcare, education and housing, along with highly subsidized food—helping to cut poverty in half between 2003 and 2008, with extreme poverty falling by 72 percent—this is welcome news. But there are differing opinions about Maduro’s politics. George Ciccariello-Maher, author of a forthcoming history of contemporary Venezuela, views him as a “moderate” who is seen by grassroots Chavistas as a “safe choice” and a “stable caretaker” for the Bolivarian Revolution. Smilde argues that within Chavismo “Maduro is on the left.” And veteran Venezuela expert Steve Ellner has noted the “hard-line” positions Maduro took as a union leader in the early 2000s, when he favored breaking with the existing union federation (controlled by anti-Chávez forces) to “construct a force for real transformation.”
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These contrasting assessments point to the importance of understanding the inner workings of the Chavismo movement. Given the mendacious but frequent references to Venezuela in the time of Chávez as a one-man show, it bears repeating that Chavismo is indeed a movement, one that is highly organized, internally diverse and not going away any time soon. The future of Venezuela depends much more on what happens within this movement than on what Maduro “really” thinks.
Since at least 2001, Chavismo has been expressed through an impressive, even bewildering, array of organizational forms such as urban land and health committees, local public planning councils and communal councils and communes. These associations are seen as a way of realizing Venezuela’s commitment to “participatory and protagonistic democracy,” as expressed in the 1999 Constitution. Through them, millions of Venezuelans have participated in popular assemblies that determine distribution of state resources. In this way, Venezuela has come close to realizing at least one ideal of democratic governance: the idea that ordinary people should be able to take a direct part in the decisions that affect their lives.
Unfortunately, this is despite, rather than because of, the efforts of many Chavista officials. There are two clearly distinguishable tendencies within the PSUV. The “endogenous right,” like all PSUV elements, supports all the policies now in place, is opposed to untrammeled capitalism and is at least rhetorically committed to popular participation and some version of socialism. But it does favor a more conciliatory approach toward the private sector and a more managerial role for the state. This faction rejects worker control and any serious attempt to move toward socialism or infringe on private property. In terms of foreign relations, the endogenous right is less inclined toward Cuba and may demonstrate greater openness to the United States in the post-Chávez period (though initially this is not likely to happen). In addition to military leaders like Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly speaker who is widely viewed as a possible rival to Maduro, the endogenous right includes Chavistas with ties to the business sector. It is hard to know how much weight the endogenous right has within the PSUV, but based on conversations with knowledgeable Chavistas I believe that over half of the current leadership is likely to fall into this category. Among the PSUV base, it is distinctly less popular.
In the fall of 2010, efforts were made to formally organize a “radical current” within the PSUV (this unfortunately proved to be short-lived due to opposition from Chávez). This current was closely identified with popular participation and anti-bureaucratism, and included leaders like Julio Chávez (no relation to Hugo), who, as mayor of Torres municipality, implemented one of the most radical participatory budgets in the world, giving ordinary citizens control over 100 percent of investment spending. Another key supporter was Eduardo Samán, a former minister of commerce who strongly favors worker control and socialism. Samán’s confrontational stance toward private enterprise won him respect and admiration from grassroots Chavistas, with whom he was quite popular while minister, but led to his dismissal by Chávez in mid-2010, allegedly due to pressure from agro-industry. In foreign relations, the radical current is fiercely anti-imperialist and advocates close relations with Cuba (as well as other “revolutionary” Latin American nations like Bolivia and Ecuador). Many of the stances advocated by the radical current seemed to fit Chávez’s own thinking, despite his opposition to its formation. But this tendency is poorly represented in the current national leadership. It is undoubtedly more popular among the party’s base, and is stronger in certain areas—such as the state of Lara (where Julio Chávez is from) and Caracas—than others.
In addition to the endogenous right and the radical current, the PSUV includes many leaders and members who cannot be clearly identified with any tendency. Maduro could be thought of as fitting into this intermediate grouping. Like Hugo Chávez, Maduro is unlikely to favor the open organization of party factions, and given his need to maintain party unity during the transition, he may be even more hostile to them than Chávez was.
Despite predictions that Chavismo will fall apart now that Chávez is gone, no such thing is likely to happen. Millions of citizens participate in the civic associations discussed above, and the PSUV has millions of members. Unlike other parties in Latin America, it has engaged in a significant amount of ideological training of its members. True, there is still little clarity about what “socialism of the twenty-first century” means, with Marxism and other theoretical traditions employed in somewhat mechanistic fashion by party leaders. But the PSUV is undoubtedly a mass party. And contrary to mainstream media portrayals of Chavistas as mindless drones, many grassroots activists I spoke with were quite willing to criticize officials and party leaders. One PSUV activist from Petare even objected to being called Chavista, telling me, “I’m not Chavista, I’m socialist.”
What about the Venezuelan opposition? As with Chavismo, it is quite diverse. In the past year, the opposition has coalesced around Henrique Capriles Radonski. His party, Primero Justicia, is one of the more impressive and forward-looking opposition parties, which unlike other sectors of the opposition has come to accept many of the basic tenets of Chavismo. During the 2012 presidential campaign Capriles promised to maintain the government’s highly popular social programs, known as missions. And Primero Justicia has organized communal councils and communes, implementing participatory budgeting in the municipalities it runs. But the force holding the opposition together was their opposition to Chávez. As Kenneth Roberts, a professor of government at Cornell, told me recently, “It is far from clear what prevents the opposition from splintering in the absence of Chávez.” This means that the future of Venezuela will most likely be decided by a struggle within Chavismo over the meaning of Chávez’s legacy.
Read Greg Grandin’s account of El Presidente’s life and legacy.