Hugo Chávez: Legacy and lessons for us
MANILA, Philippines - There is something infinitely more beautiful than Venezuela’s 6 Miss Universe title holders put together on the same stage. That beautiful thing is Hugo Chávez’s legacy of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Our fascination for Chávez started in the course of our graduate studies. We were both attracted by the ways he was gradually transforming Venezuela’s political landscape but at the same time intrigued by the international media’s characterization of the Venezuelan President as a “ruinous demagogue,” “a firebrand dictator,” and “a messianic retro-revolutionary” who uses Venezuela’s petrodollars to indulge in autocratic vanity projects.
As young researchers, we wanted to examine the impact of his charismatic leadership on a society bearing conspicuous resemblances to our own. While Filipino populist leaders continue to abuse and squander democracy’s promise, Chávez has successfully tapped its potential for popular empowerment and social justice.
In the course of our respective research projects, we realized that to reduce Chávez into pejorative labels is to trivialize the complexity and achievements of Venezuela’s democracy. His charismatic leadership was the kind that energized – not infantilized – citizens to take over their political destiny. His political influence spread beyond his country’s borders, stirring Latin America’s “pink tide,” a wave of left-leaning leaders – from Zelaya of Honduras to the Kirchners of Argentina – capturing state power through democratic elections.
It is said that Chávez, inspired by colonial liberator Simón Bolivar’s vision of a unified Latin America, was instrumental in generating the region’s new found confidence. Its latest expression is the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional organization that embraced Cuba while excluding the United States.
Venezuela and the Philippines have comparable histories. Politically, both countries were once celebrated as exemplars of democratic rule in their respective regions. After General Pérez’s military dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela’s political parties agreed to strengthen electoral institutions and renounce military intervention as a mechanism for political succession.
This compromise, known as Pacto de Punto Fijo, guaranteed Venezuela’s political stability. It was a showcase of democracy in a region where regimes have fallen prey to military coups and personalist despots.
In form, both countries projected a healthy democratic image evidenced by periodic elections and absence of successful military coups. In substance, post-dictatorship Philippines and Venezuela suffered the legacy of elite democracies which systematically disenfranchised traditionally marginalized groups. Even though Venezuela has competing parties with a broad ideological divide between center-left and center-right, struggles for power were also predominantly driven by quarreling factions or families within the ruling elite.
Such unequal and exclusionary power structure was manifest in the economic system. Oil revenues provided Venezuela the look and feel of progress but failure to substantially distribute oil wealth added force to growing inequalities in Venezuela. Like the Philippines, Venezuela is resource-rich but dirt poor, with 80% of the Venezuelan population living below the poverty line. Venezuela’s class structure also involved an ethnic dimension, where barrio-dwellers were mostly dark-skinned indigenous Latin America while the property-owning classes were white.
Unlike the Philippines, however, Venezuela has witnessed an eruption of these social tensions in 1989. Popularly known as the Caracazo, widespread protests, looting and rioting across the country’s capitol occurred after the Pérez regime eliminated gas subsidies which increased transport costs by 100%. Unofficial estimates suggest that over 2,000 people died due to the military’s violent crackdown.
Waiting for our own Chávez?
Stark economic and social inequalities catapulted the young Hugo Chávez to the political center stage in 1992. Together with his fellow Bolivarian revolutionary soldiers, then Army Lieutenant Chávez launched a military coup to unseat the perceivably corrupt President Carlos Andrés Peréz. The coup ended in defeat but its long-term implications were critical.
Chávez’s 72-second surrender speech made a lasting impression on a huge number of Venezuelans. His indigenous features, rarely found among the members of the country’s political class struck a familiar chord among the people. Impeccably dressed in military uniform, Chávez delivered a humble speech accepting responsibility for the coup’s defeat – a stark contrast from the suit-wearing, light-skinned politicians making promises they could not keep.
In that short time, he also conveyed a message of hope when he issued the phrase “Por Ahora” [For Now], hinting a future comeback that will be defined by the possibility of meaningful political change.
Chávez and his group were in prison when President Peréz forcibly resigned, given the prospect of an impeachment trial conviction. In the eyes of millions of Venezuelans, this was vindication of their crusade against a rotting political system. After being granted presidential amnesty, Chávez turned his attention again on capturing the government.
This time around, he relied on the power of the electoral ballot than military force. Successfully tapping widespread political discontent, Chávez won the election in 1998 with more than 56% of the popular vote. This breakthrough signaled the end of the Punto Fijo Republic as traditional parties’ candidates obtained a meager 4%.
El Comandante stayed in power for 14 years before he succumbed to cancer. He was politically undefeated but not without mortal wounds. He survived a US-supported civil-military coup, a general strike that paralyzed the national economy, and a recall referendum. He implemented what he called Twenty-First Century Socialism which renationalized the oil industry and redistributed urban and rural land.
Using oil revenues, he institutionalized free healthcare and education and subsidized food markets and cooperatives. Unlike Soviet-style socialism, however, the Venezuelan version did not rely on ideological vanguards but a citizenry whose fundamental rights for democratic participation were protected under the Constitution.
The revolution bore some costs though. Political polarization intensified under his grasp. Expatriates in the US and elsewhere complained political persecution, repression of civil liberties, and economic sabotage. Chávez left an economy undiversified and more dependent on oil. The military is deeply entrenched in politics and governance but at the same time crime and public insecurity is widespread. The opposition failed to capitalize on these issues as they conceded political defeat against Chávez.
These imperfections cannot obscure the revolution’s gains, Chávez’s regime witnessed levels of unemployment and infant mortality halved, per capita GDP doubled, number of public schools quintupled, and illiteracy nearly eradicated. These statistics, to be clear, were not manufactured by the state’s Orwellian Ministry of Truth, but are sourced from the United Nations, the World Bank and other independent international organizations.
With these broad indicators of Venezuela’s socio-political gains, it is not surprising that Chávez was elected President 15 times with a consistently high voter turnout of 80%, (compared to the Philippines’ 75% and the United States’ 57.5%) in an electoral process judged by international observers, including former president Jimmy Carter, as among the best in the world.
With Venezuela taking on a different trajectory compared to that of the Philippines’, it is difficult not to ask, are we just waiting for our own version of Hugo Chávez?
Role of civil society
It is tempting to answer yes to this question and single out Chávez’s leadership as the main mover of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez did loom large in Venezuela but the entire project did not rest solely on the shoulders of a single revolutionary.
A closer look reveals that a multitude of committed grassroots organizations have actively supported and sustained the revolution that began in 1998. Far from being a simple case of patronage politics, there exists a relationship of accountability between the government and the people as a result of Venezuela’s participatory social programs called misiones.
Though mostly funded by the state, there is now a healthy and organizationally coherent civil society in Venezuela capable of intermediating between the state and the people by helping deliver basic social services.
What this tells us is that while political leadership does matter in instigating change, it is not everything. This is reminiscent of the case of Naga City where Jesse Robredo was able to institutionalize good governance only because dense networks of civil society organizations were ready, willing and able to actively take part in his advocacy.
Instead of waiting for a messiah, it is more important to “create” one. After all, it was members of progressive movements who reached out to Chávez while he was imprisoned and educated him about the political and economic alternatives that depart from standard and failed prescriptions of international financial institutions. Even more important than a single figure is a committed citizenry who sees their participation in governance as more than casting a ballot in the elections.
Another important lesson from the Venezuelan case is the importance of building political institutions. Chávez skillfully used the electoral legitimacy afforded him by the people to implement a constitutional overhaul rather than completely dissolve it by executive decree, a common practice in his neighboring countries.
Within the first year of his presidency, Chávez strategically tapped constituent power to introduce far-reaching changes in the country’s charter. He did not cut corners throughout this process as he submitted all proposals through popular referenda for ratification. He also submitted himself to recall elections and did not simply dismiss the political opposition as destabilizers unworthy of public attention.
Venezuela teaches us that revolution is a process, not a one-off rupture from the old to the new regime. It is a creative process that interrogates traditionally oppressive arrangements and imagines possibilities for another world. Some would say that the Philippines’ 1987 Constitution facilitated a process of national self-reckoning which resulted in progressive provisions.
This, we suggest, is a good start, but one that is difficult to sustain if the country remains ensnared in an economically and politically exclusionary power structure.
A Venezuela without Chávez used to be inconceivable. But as new elections will be held within 30 days, the country’s political future hangs in a precarious balance. Will the Bolivarian revolution he inspired prove resilient or will it unravel?
We are predisposed to think that Chávez is smart enough to lay the basis for its continuity, cognizant of the fact that he is not beyond mortality. We do believe he took to heart the promise of indigenous South American rebel leader Túpac Katari against his colonial oppressors: “I may die as one, but I will come back in millions.” - Rappler.com
Nicole Curato, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She completed her MA thesis on Chavez-style populism in 2006 at the University of Manchester. She published a portion of her thesis entitled, "Democratic Possibilities: The Venezuelan Experience," in the book "Participation, State and the People" published by the United Nations University Press.
Aries Arugay is assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman (on leave) and is a PhD in political science candidate at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His dissertation investigates the role of civil society mobilization during political crises in young democracies. He is scheduled to do field research in Venezuela and Bolivia this summer.