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Chávez the Unfriendly Ghost

What will happen to Venezuela now that the caudillo is dead?

Illustration by Jim Stoten

As Hugo Chávez’s illness entered its final stage, I began pondering his afterlife. He seemed destined for immediate sanctification, the sort of quasi-religious elevation that greeted Evita Perón. Hugo Chávez will continue to linger for years, I suspect, given the Venezuelan veneration of the military strong man, the caudillo. In the hearts of his followers (and his many sympathizers across Latin America), Chávez will reside on the same glorious plane as Simón Bolívar, the nineteenth-century Liberator of Latin America. Even his patron, Fidel Castro, must be feeling strangely displaced today, the untimely victim of parricide.

That’s why it needs to be said clearly and often: Hugo Chávez ruined his country. But we can only explain his posthumous deification if we concede the sincerity of his commitment to the poor. The subsidized markets and clinics he created in the slums may not have lifted his loyalists from poverty, but they were a real enough presence in their lives. Democracy in Latin America will remain vulnerable until governments deliver meaningful aid to the poor and the marginalized.

Of course, the fate of Latin American democracy depends on more than that, too. It must expand the reach of civil liberties and the rule of law, the very foundations of the liberal state. This, Chávez most emphatically did not do. Indeed, he unhinged the public institutions of Venezuela. Chávez not only concentrated power; he confused or, more precisely, fused his personal biography with the history of Venezuela. On his weekly TV show and in his regime’s propaganda, he created a cult of personality; he posed as the successor to Bolívar. No democracy can prosper when one man declares himself essential and providential.

During my visits to Caracas over the years of Chávez rule, I noted the steady physical deterioration of the city and a terrifying surge in crime. But nothing saddened me more than witnessing the hatred Chávez hurled against his political opponents. That hatred was ubiquitous: It abounded in banners and billboards, in his stem-winding speeches and the rancid declarations of spokesmen on television. His regime used social media to spread conspiratorial theories and prejudices. I watched as Venezuelan society fell into the trap of ideological fanaticism, suddenly immune to reason and tolerance. The absence of political violence in the country is nothing short of a miracle.

But what will happen next? All the mass feelings of grief, all the gratitude for his social programs will likely carry his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, to victory in the presidential election on April 14. The Chavistas will continue their control of the judiciary, the legislature, and the economy—and they have burrowed deeper into society than that, too. A businessman tied to this ruling elite has just bought Globovisión, the last remaining independent TV network in Venezuela. The government can now blare its official version of politics and history without contest.

But mourning cannot continue forever, especially not in the face of an economic crisis. The evidence of rot is well known and deeply disturbing: a budget deficit of $70 billion, which amounts to 22 percent of Venezuela’s gross domestic product, and the highest inflation in Latin America. Middle-class professionals have fled the country, as have investors.

The country’s oil wealth has been administered with comic incompetence. In 1998, the country produced 3.3 million barrels of oil every day and exported 2.7 million of them abroad. That output has steadily shrunk. The country now extracts 2.4 million barrels from the soil and sea, of which only around 1.2 million are directly exported for profit (mostly to Chávez’s declared enemy in the northern hemisphere, the “Empire”). He preferred to use oil as a political tool. At home, he provided oil so cheaply that it might as well have been free. To buy the support of allies in the Caribbean, he sent various countries deeply discounted barrels. Cuba received shipments, which nominally repaid the Castro brothers for the doctors, teachers, and police whom they had sent to Venezuela. But Cuba received so much Venezuelan oil that it could afford to reexport its surplus supplies.

If Maduro wins the coming presidential election, he will be accompanied in office by Chávez’s televised image, endlessly retransmitted on state television. Yet he is not Chávez; he does not possess his hypnotic power. It is easy to imagine that he will soon be blamed for falling short of Chávez: Chávez would not have let this happen; Chávez would have foreseen all this.

Meanwhile, the opposition has shown new signs of savvy. After years of intramural squabbling, they have united behind an intelligent and courageous leader, Henrique Capriles. During Chávez’s physical decline, the opposition carefully calibrated its language and actions. This was a wise decision, because any evidence of their triumphalism or vindictiveness might have provoked a ferocious backlash. Now, the opposition can take advantage of its latent strength. In 2007, Chávez held a referendum to validate his more explicit turn toward Cuban-style socialism. But students took to the streets, and Chávez suffered a rare electoral defeat. This protest movement remains, waiting to be renewed and strengthened.

The depths of hatred in the Venezuelan society are very palpable. The possibility of violence cannot be discounted. But if the country survived 14 years of Chávez’s presidency without true political violence, it seems unlikely that street fighting will break out now. On the contrary, there’s now the possibility of political reconciliation in the not-so-distant future. There are moderates within the army, who will now have greater space to speak their minds. There is an economic crisis that will put pressure on the regime. The death of the messianic caudillo (Maduro calls him the “redeemer”) may open up channels of dialogue.

A turn toward moderation in Venezuela would reverberate widely. We wait for the day when Cuba—the only totalitarian state in Latin America—moves forward as Russia and China have. Without the pernicious influences of Chávez and Castro, the region could turn toward a different, healthier set of political choices, a robust debate between social democrats and liberals committed to a more open economy. Then the ghost of Hugo Chávez might continue to knock around, but we wouldn’t need to fear it any longer. 

Enrique Krauze is the editor of the magazine Letras Libres and the author, most recently, of Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.