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Hugo Chavez's Legacy

Juan Baretto/AFP/Getty

As millions mourn and others quietly celebrate the death of Hugo Chávez, the world returns to a question asked incessantly throughout his 14-year rule: For what will we remember him? To some extent, we already have an answer. Journalists and academics have documented the basic Chávez story: political outsider comes to power, founders as policymaker, uses timely oil boom and rhetorical wile to secure voters’ love and hate in not-quite-equal measure.1 

Two new books highlight under-reported aspects of the Chávez legacy. In Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Guardian reporter Rory Carroll deftly retells the familiar narrative and then adds something new: Hugo Chávez was a terrible boss, radiating administrative chaos from his desk at the presidential palace. The toll of this mismanagement will define post-Chávez Venezuela. Another book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, by George Ciccariello-Maher, describes the leftist forces that preceded Chávez—and those that will outlive him.2

Comandante depicts an administration consumed by perpetual tumult. Between 1999 (when he first took office) and his death, Chávez milled through eight vice presidents and more than 180 ministers. Paranoid about loyalty (doubly so after his two-day ouster in a failed 2002 coup), Chávez encouraged eavesdropping and backstabbing among his own staff in an unceasing attempt to identify possible defectors. Those who crossed him—even slightly—might have found themselves very publicly denounced as traitors on The Razorblade (a popular late-night show), or watching Chávez lead a chant (in jest, but nevertheless upsetting) about marching them to the execution wall. One former ally, Raul Baduel, believes that it was Chávez who, angry over his resignation, bought and publicized humiliating sexual photos taken by a former mistress.

The consequences of Chávez’s management style—of what Carroll calls the “game of cat and mouse around the throne”—were felt far beyond his cabinet. In 2008, Chávez renationalized parts of a major industrial conglomerate that mines ore, makes metal, and runs a powerful hydroelectric plant (it has the third-largest capacity of any in the world). Soon after the takeover, Chávez installed a host of ineffective managers who presided over plummeting production and massive damage to the physical plants. One sales director, Luís Velásquez, stole hundreds of tons of rebar and then sold it on the black market, earning the moniker Rebar King. And when electricity rationing forced the government to channel electricity out of industry and into electorally sensitive residential areas, administrators at the aluminum smelter didn’t even manage to properly power down their expensive equipment. For Venezuela’s industrial heartland, as for much of the rest of the country, a fatal combination of hyper-centralization, entropy, and politicization all but ensured precipitous decline.

Outright theft came along with Chávez’s more quotidian inability to run the cable cars on time—though it’s often hard to tell the two apart. A special fund for “excess oil revenue,” disbursed at Chávez’s discretion, has accrued $100 billion since 2005. (This is on the order of one-tenth of GDP for the entire period.) Eight hundred and forty-five million dollars from this fund have gone to a paper mill that has yet to produce a single sheet, $28 million to a fertilizer factory that didn’t get past the cornerstone, and $312 million to an aluminum rolling mill that has yet to break ground. Carroll’s book, full of stories like these, supports Transparency International’s claim that Venezuela ranks ninth-to-last in perception of public-sector corruption. This places it just above Afghanistan, Somalia, and North Korea.

Leo Ramirez/Getty Images News/Getty
Hugo Chavez and his daughters at Miraflores Palace in 2011. 

Remarkably, Chávez maintained these managerial tactics even from his sickbed. Despite his apparent inability to speak during the last phase of his illness, Chávez somehow promoted and demoted various cadres. (His signature on the document appointing a new Foreign Minister sparked rumors that a machine signed for him.) Although he had not appeared in public since late 2012, the Information Minister insisted that Chávez nevertheless remained “ahead of the fundamental tasks required of his position.” The withholding of even the most basic information about Chávez’s health status kept allies (to say nothing of the opposition) guessing, maneuvering for position on shifting ground. In that sense, at least, Chávez’s last months were a natural continuation of his presidency.

Carroll’s account centers on the presidential palace, but he briefly acknowledges Chávez’s success in empowering poor Venezuelans, showing how Chávez invited a peasant to speak on national television and a security guard who takes great pride in stewardship of his neighborhood council. Carroll’s conclusion notes that Chávez “taught the barrio dwellers that they were the majority and deserved a place at the table.”

Political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher, author of another new book (We Created Chávez), would argue instead that it was the barrio dwellers who taught Chávez. Ciccariello-Maher’s largely convincing central argument is that the Venezuelan left preceded Chávez, helped bring him to power, radicalized him, and will outlive him. Even if Ciccariello-Maher overstates the autonomy of the left vis-à-vis the extremely powerful government bureaucracy, and even if his view of the revolutionary end game—namely, the dismantling of representative democracy and the dissolution of the central state—seems implausible, Ciccariello-Maher’s history of the Venezuelan left is essential to understanding the Chávez era.

Ciccariello-Maher tells in great detail the story of the students, workers, peasants, and indigenous movements that bridled against the pre-Chávez regime, and of the hostility they confronted. Previous writing hasn’t quite captured just how little some of the old-guard Venezuelan elite knew and still do not know about their fellow Venezuelans—or even about political correctness: Several years ago, a major-newspaper editorial referred to Chávez supporters as the lumpen de siempre (a riff on Marx’s lumpenproletariat, implying uselessness or worthlessness); others refer to the dark-skinned Chávez as “micomandante” (roughly, “monkey dictator.”) “They stole the country from us,” a Bay-Area Venezuelan expat put it to me recently.

Some among Venezuela’s opposition cling to the illusion of pre-Chávez political harmony (“there was no class resentment before Chávez,” an opposition newspaper editor told me in an e-mail earlier this year)—but, because of Chávez, no one who endorses this fiction has a future in Venezuelan politics. Certainly, Chávez’s anti-elite rhetoric encouraged conflict, but the converse is equally true: Chávez’s rhetoric resonated so forcefully precisely because deep class conflict predated him.

This shift in political tone brought people into the political process, as did Chávez’s participatory budgeting initiatives. A massive voter registration drive pushed voter rolls from 10 to 18 million people. Ciccariello-Maher glosses over this achievement, but he would likely agree that this large-scale effective enfranchisement changed the Venezuelan electorate for the better. As Scott Mainwaring argues in a clearheaded review of recent academic literature on Chávez, “[he] has arguably been more successful than all representative democracies in Latin America at promoting a sense of empowerment among the poor.”

This renewed sense of efficacy may keep voters engaged in a post-Chávez Venezuelan democracy, but political participation alone will not correct the managerial disaster Carroll describes: Enfranchisement will not itself revive steel mills or properly staff bureaucracies (let alone meet the measureless challenge of righting the economy).  In making life difficult for those who worked for him, Chávez made nearly impossible the task of his successor.

  1. revealing biographya string of long-form magazine articlesat least one skillful documentary, and a new compilation of expert commentary elaborate this theme.

  2. Full disclosure: George Ciccariello-Maher and I met several times when we were both living in Caracas in 2007, and we met once again during Venezuela’s presidential election last fall; in the intervening years, we exchanged friendly if infrequent e-mails.