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Beyond the legacy of Chávez

The media coverage around Hugo Chávez’s death serves as an apt reminder of just how controversial a figure Venezuela’s former leader was. The thousands of people mourning their leader in the streets of Caracas was in sharp contrast with those openly celebrating his death – mainly those 244,000 middle and upper-class Venezuelans who had fled the country and were registered last year as living in the United States. A tyrant for some, a saviour for others, global reactions to the announcement of Chávez’s death have been accompanied by numerous reflections on his legacy, as well as predictions of whether chavismo can survive Chávez. Some also wonder how Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia will cope without the economic aid from Venezuela. Others focus on the possibility of a reconfiguration of relationships between Latin American countries – as well as their respective relationships to the United States.

Chávez’s death forces a ‘reading’ of Latin American societies in light of his legacy.

Beyond musings and predictions on Venezuela’s immediate practical and geopolitical challenges, Chávez’s death forces a ‘reading’ of Latin American societies in light of his legacy.  What does Chávez tell us about Latin American societies and their politics? One of the key insights it provides is a powerful glimpse of the paramount sway that informal institutions and charismatic personal power still hold in most countries across the region.

Delving into Chávez is about revisiting the birth-place of populism – a way of re-grappling with the basic characteristics of the region that for many put in place the basic framework for populist politics. Hugo Chávez’s political trajectory highlights personal power – as a result of his very personal style, but also (and this reminds us of populism’s abhorrence of professional politics) because he was able to resort to informal networks and allies. He entered Venezuela’s national political scene in 1992 through a failed military coup. Six years later, he won the presidential elections, and two years after that made it clear that he was not leaving any time soon. Following a series of Constitutional amendments – some of which were supported by recurrent public referendums – he was able to again and again stand for re-election.  For years, Chávez overcame electoral opponents – most recently he beat Henrique Capriles, with 55 per cent of the vote – and vigorously confronted national and international critics.

This way of operating reminds us of what is core to populism: that politics is about them and us.

This way of operating reminds us of what is core to populism: that politics is about them and us, that setting up mechanisms to wrestle power from the elites at any cost is a respected (if not respectable) way of doing politics in populist terms, and that populist politics is not about policy, but about power and relationships.  The fact that much of this could apply to any form of democratic society tells us much about the deep relationship between democracy and populism. It also forces us to confront an obvious fact: that populism is a protean ideology and, basic tenets aside, is mainly gifted at embedding itself in specific contexts and making the most of democracy’s local and specific failures.  In this respect populism is also a very good lens through which to examine the most intimate terrain of a polity: its habits, its myths, its hidden levers and informal network and institutions.

Informal institutions and networks

In a region plagued by decades of authoritarianism and right-wing dictatorships and the resulting political and economic instability – the 1980s are known as Latin America’s ‘lost decade’ – various strategies have introduced and consolidated forms of democracy. While most countries – like Venezuela – took up arms and later rewrote constitutions that laid out formal mechanisms for fair party competition and guaranteed elections, others – like Mexico, where authoritarianism was not of a military type – democratised pragmatically. In the latter, a single party (the PRI) governed for nearly 70 years by constantly interfering with elections and making quick fixes to political rules when it suited them. The PRI took this route to maintain its electoral supremacy. These ‘selective choices’, all about where to allow democratic practices without jeopardising the survival of the regime, brought about electoral democracy.  The result was a failure to consolidate the regime within the framework of the country’s most important legal document, the Constitution.

Informal institutions remain embedded at the very core of society.

Whether democratic consolidation was guaranteed by constitutions or not, and whether it was achieved by a leader – like Lula in Brazil – or a movement – like Chile’s Concertación (the coalition that took over in 1988 when Pinochet was defeated) – it meant that informal institutions remain embedded at the very core of society. And given the nature of institutions (and particularly informal ones) as collective social norms, informal institutions also find themselves at the very core of public bodies. These range from grassroots organisations that help citizens overcome daily challenges – e.g. soup kitchens or issue-specific pressure groups during Perón’s time in Argentina – to closed groups of politicians who, by using mentor-disciple relations and personal connections, build networks and channels for their members to help each other increase their opportunities to access political power. (Roderic Ai Camp refers to these groups as Camarillas). And Latin American leaders excel at exploiting these.

One reaction might be, so what? Don’t all societies and political systems give rise to this form of behaviour? The answer is, yes, of course.  And yet, we still view the distance between formal institutions and informal institutions as a measure of democratic development. The greater the distance between the two, the greater the distance with procedural democracy.  The case of Latin America, and of Chávez’s Venezuela, reminds us that it is precisely procedural democracy against which populists rail.  More to the point in this case, it also reminds us that that distance can be bridged by a number of different forms of politics – pragmatic populism (in the case of Mexico), charismatic populism (in the case of Venezuela), bitter technocratic pills, in the case of Europe.

Throughout his time in power, but particularly since 2004, Chávez resorted to a wide array of informal channels to harness increasing support from the most impoverished sectors of Venezuelan society. The latter were the core supporters of the Bolivarian dream. As Ivan Briscoe writes, Chávez “proved exceptionally adept at agglomerating groups, forming coalitions, scenting opportunity and building a tremendous and durable power bloc; helped all the while by soaring oil prices.” He ruled as he saw fit, and used his friendly relations with China and Cuba to bring home policy solutions for defence, intelligence, education and health services. If formal rules had been stronger, these informally negotiated solutions would perhaps not have been possible; it is unlikely that he would have gotten away with leaving security and intelligence in foreign hands.

The perennial power of charismatic leaders

Charismatic leaders of Latin America have been the most effective mobilisers of the disadvantaged sectors of society.

Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and even electoral losers like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico are examples of the iconic charismatic leadership figures of Latin America. These leaders have been the most effective mobilisers of the disadvantaged sectors of society. And in a region with high levels of inequality (figures for 2011 show that, in 18 Latin American countries, the wealthiest 10 per cent earned 32 per cent of the total income, while the poorest 40 per cent only received 15 per cent), the support from marginalised groups is electorally powerful.

Chávez won elections thanks to the overwhelming support of Venezuela’s poor, who regarded him as the saviour who ended their isolation from society by making education and health services – staffed by Cuban teachers and doctors – accessible to them.

What next for Chavismo?

Chávez’s governmental apparatus will have to find a way to keep the ship from sinking in a context in which the entire system was designed by Chávez, for Chávez. As his health considerably deteriorated last year, one of his last informal arrangements was to decree that vice president Maduro was to take over the presidency in his absence. This instead of sticking to Article 233 of the Constitution’s provision for the Speaker of the Assembly (Diosdado Cabello) to step in. Elections will inevitably take place in the near future, and it is yet to be seen whether Chávez’s party, the PSUV, can stay in power.

There is no doubt that Venezuela, like most other Latin American countries, will not go back to an authoritarian, military and violent model. The power of the military is weak in most Latin American constitutions and, though variations exist, most people believe that they are better off with democracy: in spite of a slight decrease in support for democracy in 2011 compared to 2010, (possibly triggered by the effects of the economic crises and changes in government and policies) 58 per cent of the population in Latin America prefer democratic governments to any other form of government.

Democratic consolidation and the taming of the populist beast can only go hand in hand with a lessening of inequality.

But an important question is whether gradual democratic consolidation in the region will eventually put an end to the iconic charismatic leader figure and the corresponding weight of ‘informality’. Possibly not. In many countries, the shocking 40 per cent of people who get only 15 per cent of the total national income are often locked in a vicious cycle of deprivation, like those living precariously on the steep hills of Caracas and to whom Chávez devoted his life and oil revenues, or, in fact, those who traded their vote for much-needed cash to Peña Nieto.  As anywhere else, democratic consolidation and the taming of the populist beast can only go hand in hand with a lessening of inequality.

Until then, it is likely that, at best, Chávez-style politicians will prevail.


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