IDSA COMMENT

The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

March 20, 2013

Venezuela, a Latin American country with a territorial expanse of 9.16 lakh sq km and a population of 30 million, virtually the third-oldest democracy (in Latin America after Costa Rico and Columbia till the late 1990s) outside of the industrial democracies, transformed itself phenomenally since 1998 when Hugo Rafael Chavez Fria, the son of a poor school teacher and an ex-Army Colonel, was elected as President. The impact of Chavez’s ascendancy to power was felt was not only within Venezuela but also, gradually, in the international arena, particularly in Latin America and the Third World. Chavez, who effected substantial changes in Venezuela’s polity and economy, was undoubtedly the most prominent, influential, and polarising Latin American political leader since Fidel Castro captured power in Cuba in 1959.

The domestic backdrop in Venezuela, which contributed to Chavez’s rise to power, was bedevilled by: (i) a continuous and rapid decline in living standards of the poor, resulting from low rates of economic growth, high inflation, and soaring unemployment (the number of persons below the poverty line was nearing 70 per cent by 1996, and more than a third of the population was living in extreme poverty); (ii) low public morale caused by a series of highly-publicized corruption scandals involving government, political and business functionaries; and (iii) failure of the then-existing political system to enable representation of other than rightist or centre-right viewpoints and policies throughout the main pre-Chavez period political parties, namely, Accion Democratic (AD) and Comite de Oreganizacion Politica Electoral Independiente (COPEI). Thus Chavez, leader of a failed coup attempt in 1992, with an anti-system populist image, attracted the attention of a substantial segment of Venezuelans who had left-of-centre proclivities but could not find expression and support through the medium of the dominant parties of the time. Chavez turned out to be a leader with grassroots support and great organisational ability who could prevail over party-based leaders like Rafael Caldera (originally a COPEI leader, who subsequently brought down the COPEI and formed his own National Convention Party) and, finally, defeat Henrique Salas Romer (a provincial political leader supported by the COPEI) in the 1998 Presidential Elections.

The developments in Venezuela as an outcome of Chavez’s political rise also had an impact on other Latin American nations, particularly on adjoining Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia. Notwithstanding the so-called streaks of electoral autocracy of the Chavez regime that has been highlighted by many Western analysts, there was universal acceptance that even though the regime was increasingly authoritarian, some societal conditions potentially favourable to democracy did blossom under Chavez. A salient achievement of Chavez was the reduction of poverty levels in Venezuela from 49 per cent in 1999 to 27 per cent by 2009, and promoting a sense of empowerment among the nation’s poor as compared to other Latin American democracies. A notion that Venezuela, led by Chavez, was a bastion of participatory democracy and social justice became more pronounced among the people of the region. Despite political divergence on his approach to certain issues, Chavez found a broad measure of support from leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva. For the majority of the Latin American nations, Chavez came to be regarded as a strong nationalist leader— a modern-day Simon de Bolivar (Chavez re-named his nation as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), who could uplift the masses socio-economically and overcome the stranglehold of US business interests and the financial capital controlling their mineral-based economies and influencing their politics.

The significance of Chavez lies in his attempts to liberalise the international monetary system with regard to credit support for poverty alleviation schemes in Latin America outside the ambit of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—dominated by the United States and the European nations—by setting up the Caracas-based “Bank of the South”, which was lauded by eminent economists like Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. His efforts were to promote a concept of the Global South (which could even encompass Afro-Asia nations later), and a financial system to sustain it through liberal credit support from financial resources available within the region, free from the moorings of the Bretton Woods institutions, dominated by the US and the industrial West. The idea was undoubtedly utopian in the prevalent conflictual milieu of the Third World, but was considered worth a try by many, including non-radical Latin American political leaders.

Despite attempts by the US and some of its Western allies to project Chavez as an autocrat who allowed only a limited democratic expression in his country, it goes to his credit that the political institution of the Organization of American States (OAS)—the major regional gathering of the Western hemispheric nations since the Second World War—adopted Resolution 1080 of 1991 and the concomitant Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001 on his initiative. These enable a consensual intervention on the part of the OAS on any occurrence of sudden or irregular interference in the democratic political processes in its member nations. (This was a significant departure from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, popularly known as the Rio Pact, worked out by the USA in 1947 as an instrument of intervention in Latin American nations in support of US interests.) An interesting feature of the present Venezuelan Constitution instituted by Chavez is that 116 of its 300 articles concern human rights—including women’s and indigenous people’s rights—and related obligations of the state machinery and the people. In 2008, Amnesty International praised Venezuela’s “Law on the Rights of Women to a Life Free of Violence: 2007 as an example for the rest of the region.”

There is a general acceptance that Chavez had the welfare of his Venezuelan people, particularly, and the Latin Americans, at large, as his prime goal. However, his periodic political diatribes and theatrics seemed to indicate that, by calling for hostility in all possible spheres against the US, he was trying to divert attention from his policy failures on the domestic economic front and discontent at home against his regime. However, the fact remains that the polity which Chavez brought about through the existing Venezuelan Constitution was de facto based on the historic Jeffersonian norm of “the will of the people substantially declared”. Article 347 of the Venezuelan Constitution stipulates “that the original constituent power rests with the people of Venezuela and this power can be exercised by calling a National Constitutional Assembly for the purpose of transforming the state, creating a new judicial order and drawing up a new Constitution.” Some may argue that a provision for scrapping the Constitution has been created by ruler(s) who may turn dictatorial at some stage after coming to power initially under a popular mandate, when s/he finds the existing system, i.e., Parliament and laws under the Constitution, inconvenient, and call for a referendum (the Article enables as such) to change the existing Constitution. The fact of the matter is that whatever political structure evolves in Venezuela apropos the Constitution promulgated by Chavez, it will have to be based on the express will of the Venezuelan people by virtue of the safeguard built in under Article 349 of the said Constitution. This article stipulates that “The President of the Republic shall not have the power to object to a new Constitution” (inter alia) clarifying that “[t]he existing constituted authorities shall not be permitted to obstruct the Constituent Assembly in any way.”

Hugo Chavez was a leader who attracted support from a wide social strata in Venezuela. He not only brought about a new political domain in his nation but also set in motion some trends towards eroding the politico-economic dominance of the US in Latin America. Quite a few other leaders in the region might find this worth emulating.

Note: The statistics on Venezuela’s economy have been taken from reports of the Economic Commission of Latin America.

Gautam Sen, ex-Additional CGDA, has served with the Government of India in different capacities.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India