Chávismo After Chávez

CARACAS – With the death of Hugo Chávez, Chávismo has lost its supremacy in Venezuela. It does not matter that so-called Chávistas still control Venezuela’s parliament, 17 of 23 provincial governments, and all key state institutions, including the judiciary. Nor does it matter that Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has already assumed the presidency. All of the signs point to the decline of Chávismo and to the end of Venezuela’s role as Latin America’s populist core.

Between last October’s presidential election and the one held last month, Chávismo lost almost 700,000 votes to Henrique Capriles’ Democratic Unity Roundtable – a shift that many, including Chávistas, attribute to “Maduro not being Chávez.” This was the first presidential election in Venezuela that resulted in an almost even split among voters (and the outcome itself remains hotly contested). If Venezuela continues along this path, Chávismo could not only lose its majority; it could collapse altogether.

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Maduro’s poor performance reflects his squandering of Chávez’s electoral capital. More important, it has deepened doubt that he will be able to perform two crucial functions of Chávismo, one related to Cuba and the other a more nationalist, less “anti-capitalist” purpose connected to unnamed yet powerful military figures.

Chávez’s connections with Cuba were an important factor in his choice of Maduro – a Marxist tutored by Fidel and Raúl Castro – as his heir. More than a decade ago, Cuba saw in Chávez a way to drive Latin American populism in three main ways: establish North American imperialism and the local “oligarchies” as common enemies; lock in the support of the uneducated and deprived underclass; and erode the bases of viable opposition.

Curiously, many of the young democracies born after the ignominy of the right-wing military regimes of the 1970’s and 1980’s define themselves according to Cuba’s long-lasting communist dictatorship. Tempted by the idea of endless re-election and absolute authority, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner all indulge and support each other, with the economically and ideologically powerful Venezuela playing an important synthesizing role.

But Venezuela’s election may have changed all that. Given that Maduro cannot retain Chávez’s existing supporters, he is clearly not a candidate for regional leadership. In fact, with Chávismo losing ground, Cuba will struggle to maintain its political influence in Venezuela – and thus the economic sinecures (including heavily subsidized oil) on which it depends.

Moreover, it will not be easy for Cuba to find a new leader to champion its absolutist ideology across Latin America. Fernández is occupied with Argentina’s internal problems. Correa’s Ecuador lacks economic weight, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is probably not interested, with Brazil’s growing economic and political clout having placed it out of Cuba’s reach.

With little hope of restoring Venezuela’s regional authority, Maduro will have to focus on safeguarding his tenuous leadership position at home. This means that forging a strong partnership with the military is essential.

The military embodies the most extreme institutional transformation that Chávez achieved in Venezuela. Under his leadership, what was once an apolitical and non-deliberative institution – as is standard in a democracy – became the engine of Chávez’s “twenty-first-century socialism.” Just as the Argentine working class formed Juan Perón’s electoral base 70 years ago, Venezuela’s armed forces served as Chávez’s most steadfast supporters, executing his authority throughout the country under the motto, “Country, socialism, or death.”

As Chávez’s health deteriorated, however, so did the motto’s significance. But the overwhelming military presence in government ministries and institutions, state-owned companies, provincial governments, and private businesses remains intact. The military has effectively achieved a coup d’état without any struggle.

Maduro seems to have the military’s support – at least for now. Whether or not the partnership lasts will depend on how Maduro tackles Venezuela’s many problems, including high inflation, a soaring crime rate, pervasive corruption, economic stagnation, low productivity, supply shortages, capital flight, insufficient investment, weak institutions, and a lack of respect for the rule of law.

But Maduro must act fast. He will not be granted the 100-day “honeymoon” period that new governments typically receive to revise their predecessors’ policies and, presumably, to correct their errors, because his administration is a continuation of Chávez’s 14-year presidency. Moreover, Maduro has already been the head of Venezuela’s executive for almost 180 days, first as Vice President, then as acting president, and now as the country’s elected leader.

Given this, Maduro cannot leave any issues unacknowledged or blame them on his predecessor. At the same time, it will be difficult to address Venezuela’s problems effectively without Chávez’s electoral support, rhetorical talent, and charisma.

To be sure, Chávismo endures. Indeed, it still represents roughly half of Venezuela’s electorate. But the rest of the population cannot and should not be ignored. If Maduro fails to recognize this and act accordingly, he will lose the military’s support – and Venezuelans could lose their republic. Such an outcome would have serious consequences for Latin America.