This Council on Hemispheric Affairs report was produced by COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Senior Research Fellow Frederick B. Mill. For the original report and footnote information follow the link below.
Today, a century and a half since [the death of Bolivar ], here on his native soil, here where his ashes are, I, Bolivarian to the bones, am here to say to you through him, and to him through you: thank you my General, thank you for your effort for the freedom of Venezuela. And here we are today, ready to resume the path of real independence and the real development of our peoples, and to build the dream of our liberators. (Hugo Chavez, Dec. 16, 2005, Recife, Pernambuco, Brasil.)
Demonstrably one of the giant Latin American figures of this age, Hugo Chavez, has delegated a number of the responsibilities of his office to Vice President Nicolas Maduro and is, at this writing, fighting a battle with cancer in a hospital bed in Cuba, a country he frequently has turned to in moments of dire medical needs. In the past few weeks, as his medical condition has worsened, some elements of the opposition have called for Chavez to forfeit his office or urged that new elections should be staged if Chavez is unable to be sworn in by the official January 10th inauguration date. However, both the Attorney General, Cilia Flores, and even the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, have argued that the inauguration date should be seen as a mere formality and may be postponed, though not indefinitely. In the meantime the country’s National Assembly has taken a sobering step of granting the ailing Chavez a leave of absence.While COHA joins all of those who wish Chavez a speedy and complete recovery, dramatically different assessments of the nature of his impact on the region have already begun. Whatever form the debate over his legacy takes, it is beyond doubt that the Bolivarian Revolution has already transformed Venezuela and much of the hemisphere into a different kind of place than it was before the advent of the Hugo Chavez era. Here an attempt is being made to preface the inquiry into the Chavez legacy, which is still unfolding in its historical, political, international, and domestic contexts.
Post-Cold War Latin America has been characterized by a failure, from a social justice point of view, of the global neoliberal project. Most of the region has gradually emancipated itself from US hegemony and a number of new experiments have emerged in what Chavez would call “21st century socialism.” One lesson of 20th century leftist politics is that in order to develop truly democratic forms of socialism, pro-democracy forces have had to combat tendencies toward centralized party control from above as well as to build participatory forms of self governance from below. To begin to report on the form of socialism that is being invoked in Venezuela, we will briefly trace the Bolivarian project from its roots in the region’s traditions and indicate some its early outcomes in contemporary practice.
In a speech delivered at the Autonomous University of Mexico (May 2004), Chavez evokes the memory of Miranda, O’Higgins, Bolivar, Zapata, Jose Marti, San Martin and other champions of Latin American independence. Chavez has declared on a number of occasions that in order to build a better world “we must recover in our inner most being and come to know well who we are as Latin Americans” (27 May, 2004). This recovery of historic memory, combined with the influence of humanist and socialist thought, is what informs the emancipatory ideology of the Bolivarian Revolution. For Chavez, “we have to build socialism according to our own particularities and our own realities; we cannot be copying manuals from any other part of the world” (16, Dec. 2005).
With regard to contemporary practice, the Bolivarian Revolution existing inside Venezuela has combined social investment with the building of new social bodies such as communal councils, citizens assemblies and missions. Perhaps not immune to clientelismo, these bodies are among the portals that afford popular entrance to grass roots governance and to direct involvement in the implementation of social programs. The Chavez administration has nationalized a number of enterprises (most notably the energy industry), set up lending institutions to improve access to credit, launched an ambitious housing construction program, expanded access to health care and education, as well as implemented policies to expand domestic food production.
Social investment has improved the lives of millions of Venezuelans. Since 1999, when Chavez first came into office, there has been an overall reduction of unemployment (from about 14.5% in 1999 to 6.4% in November 2012); rising GDP growth (at 5.5% in 2012); a dramatic decrease in extreme poverty (from 20.1% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011); and a significant decrease in infant mortality (from 20 per 1000 in 1999 to 13 per 1000 in 2011).  Of course social investment has its costs so it remains exigent to keep both inflation and the debt under control. Public insecurity, most notably the soaring rate of homicides, has risen to intolerable levels since 1999; it represents an alarming set back and remains a formidable challenge for whoever becomes Chavez’s ultimate successor.
Beyond Venezuela, Chavez has left an indelible mark on rest of the Americas. For example, his legacy shall be seen as a significant part of the driving force behind the internationalization of Latin American politics. A good case can be made that Chavez has also been at the forefront of new multilateral Latin American political, economic and security associations such as Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas (ALBA). Chavez often stood at the diplomatic front line of resistance to frequent and sometimes violent attempts to rehabilitate the neoliberal enterprises in Latin America. He has also helped make Venezuela into a prominent part of contemporary Latin American experiments in democratic socialism. All such experiments, while forging their own paths, are in some degree tied to the intellectual underpinnings of Chavez’s Bolivarian ideal: an independent, democratic, and socialist Latin America.
It would be a fallacy, however, to exclusively equate the ethos of Chavez with the values of the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavez has not been the only protagonist of the revolution, although he often has been the most visible and daring of them. There has been a relationship of reciprocal determination between Chavez, the revolutionary leader, and the millions of people who took to the streets to rescue him when reactionary elements of the military attempted a right wing coup d‘ etat in 2002. To Chavez’ credit, a majority has almost always been there to reaffirm his legitimacy at the ballot box. Without popular support there would be no revolution and, at best, Chavez could be rotting in jail. Chavez is well aware of this: “The neoliberals want to defeat me … but really, though we cannot underestimate the threat, popular power has demonstrated itself in Venezuela; there are millions of human beings ready to defend their project … it is a national project that has been growing and becoming stronger with each day and for this reason has given hope to the people” (27 May, 2004).
Any fair assessment of Chavez’s record ought to avoid over-simplification. While there have been credible reports of episodic transgressions against democratic rights under the Chavez administration, it is nonsense to label him as a dictator and brush aside the bigger picture. In fact, there is no doubt that Chavez has been a democratically validated leader throughout his rule and that he has supported policies that have lifted a significant number of his compatriots out of poverty and political exclusion. Chavez has been a prolific speech maker, always invoking the memory of the liberators, and quick to expose the mystifications of neoliberal ideology. But there has also been a dark side, as at times he has lapsed into what has to be called irresponsible statements which admirers could well have done without. He has promoted the building of popular power from below, but the prominence of “Chavismo” has made it more of a challenge for anyone else in his country to replace him if need be. This is especially important given the current delicate question of succession. While Chavez has on occasion denounced anti-Semitism, he could have taken a stronger line against it. He internationalized Venezuelan foreign policy, often adopting a ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ attitude which contributed to his at times arcane modus operandi. In some cases, this has placed him in the all too close company of dictatorial and authoritarian rulers such as Syrian President Bashar al–Assad.
Despite these ambiguities, it is clear that Chavez, armed with fiercely independent and revolutionary Latin American traditions, has been standing up against the growing wasteland of neoliberal economics and battling for an independent and authentically socialist Venezuela. It is not too much to say that he has set an example for the entire region that it is possible to recuperate national wealth from foreign usurpation and survive the inevitable reaction. He has managed to forge ahead with the hugely important foundation of the Bolivarian strategy despite Washington’s unremittingly hostile line and the often vigorous Venezuelan domestic opposition to the initiative. Chavez has held up the Bolivarian sword not to slay any of his political opponents, but rather to embolden those who would otherwise be marginalized to become the protagonists of their own futures.
How sustainable is the Bolivarian revolution? As a key component in Latin America’s turn left, it could face the ire of international capital. While there are reports disseminating in Washington that off the record conversations between Venezuela and Washington were being held as early as last November, Washington’s tone in these talks unfortunately projects a kind of patronizing sufferance that hardly amounts to any genuine respect for Venezuela as a sovereign country. This kind of tone will not evoke an era of good will or lead to any kind of normalization of relations between the two countries. There is no reason to believe that U.S.-Latin America policies will be more congenial than what has been the case up to now. In this respect the Obama Administration could not be more disappointing to the Latin American nations hoping for a change. Roger Noriega, the former Bush Administration State Department hard-line bombardier and Latin Americanist is already scouring the countryside looking for pro Castro and pro Chavez targets. Noriega’s much more serious batsman, but equally hardline, Senator Menendez (D-N.J.) has queued up in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from which he will be able to mobilize the controversial anti-Castro fundamentalists calling for the continued embargo against Cuba and adversarial relations with Venezuela.
Generally, we can expect those with bellicose intentions towards the revolution both inside and outside of Venezuela to take full advantage of any internal political differences that the Bolivarians may bring to the surface during the working out of the succession process. We have seen the brutal and catastrophic consequence of the 2009 coup in Honduras—transforming that banana republic into a failed state— but in Honduras, unlike Venezuela, there did not exist well-developed organs of popular power nor sufficient sectors of the military loyal to constitutional rule at the time of that coup. If Washington is looking for the good old days in Venezuela, it is just not going to happen. Venezuela is not Honduras in 2009 nor is it Chile in 1973. Any attempt at the restoration of the neoliberal model in Venezuela will face the determination and resilience of once hapless Venezuelans who have been brought out from the shadows of exclusion and will never want to turn back. We can also expect international allies of the Bolivarian project to proudly show their colors and oppose any outside attempts to sully Venezuelan democracy. Democratic change in Venezuela must be homegrown.