Hugo Chavez is dead. Will his political philosophy be far behind?
He was the ubiquitous face of Venezuela, both domestically and abroad, for over 12 years. Bombastic, dictatorial and often paranoid in style, Hugo Chavez signified, in his own words, “Socialism for the 21st Century,”. In reality, his political orientation (known as Chávismo in his home country) was little more than a mixture of traditional Bolivarianism with sprinkles of nepotism and populism for good measure. Or perhaps to more bluntly put Chavez in his proper context, he was just another Latin American dictator who was more interested in projecting his power than his philosophy. He was also among the relatively few left-leaning leaders that human rights groups publicly challenged.
In short, Hugo Chavez will not be missed on the international stage.
The news of Hugo Chavez’s death has prompted the usual obituary postings recapping the Venezuelan leader’s life. His attempted coup in 1992, his rise to power in 1998, the coup against him in 2002, and his attempt to become a counterweight to the U.S. in Latin America, aligning himself with China and Iran while promoting socialist agitators in other countries.
What been less discussed is what Chavez’s passing means for his country and Chávismo.
In the immediate term, the answer is, well, nothing. Chavez had already appointed his successor, the radical Nicolás Maduro, as vice-president, ensuring the continuation of Chávismo and its political patronage.
Maduro has also continued the other tradition of Chavez’s reign – bizarre pronouncements. Hours before Chavez’s death, Maduro proclaimed that Chavez had been somehow given cancer by “established enemies” (the U.S.), followed by expelling two U.S. attaches:
The U.S. government may be mum so far, but Latin American experts were quick to dismiss Maduro’s speech as wild and nonsensical.
“This clown show demonstrates that these guys are amateurs and play their hands too easily,” said Chris Sabatini, an analyst for America’s Society/Council of the Americas, a think tank in New York City.
It’s poorly executed plan for a post-Chávez Venezuela, Sabatini said.
“This is a desperate government peddling in absurdities,” he said.“They needed some sort of cover and now they don’t know what to do.”
Despite his likely backing of those who supported Chavez, Maduro is not the only viable option. Opposition candidate and former mayor Henrique Capriles Radonski is likely to run again, having lost to Chavez in October by only 11%. Capriles is most certainly the anti-Chavez, having been jailed for joining the coup attempt in 2002, while opposing most of Chavez’s high profile policies, including backing away from alliances with Iran and the Colombian rebel group FARC. Worst for Chavez’s legacy? Capriles would embrace the economic policies of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Despite the reputation of Latin America falling further into the Socialist clutches of Chavez and his followers, the real trendsetter has been Lula. Initially feared to be a Chavez clone when he came to power in 2002, Lula’s more moderate economic policies have turned Brazil from being the largest debtor among emerging economies to a net creditor, while moving more Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class.
Lula wouldn’t be recognized as moderate or conservative north of the Rio Grande, although his successor’s plan to privatize airports, ports, and roads is more conservative than policies here. Nevertheless, “Lulismo” represents a definite turning of the political tides in Latin America.
Is it a pipe-dream to believe that Chavez’s policies could follow him into the dustbin of history? Perhaps not. In the days before Chavez won re-election against Capriles, the polls showed another outcome was possible – Capriles would beat Maduro by six points if they faced off.