Hugo Chávez, Rest in Peace

David Smilde

I learned about Hugo Chávez’s passing just as I boarded a flight to Caracas and had four solid hours to think about it. It seems incredible that it was fourteen years ago that Chávez assumed the presidency. It seems incredible to imagine Venezuela without him. Chávez changed Venezuela and changed the region. It will take a few years to fully understand his legacy—and it will undoubtedly be debated for decades to come.

Within Venezuela Chávez generated a sense of inclusion among the poor who now feel like they have a place and a voice in Venezuelan society. I first came to Venezuela in the peak of the neoliberal era, the early 1990s. The reigning wisdom was that the state had no money and could not attend to people’s needs. Venezuelans had to change and they were on their own. The barrios I studied back then were desolate places with a sense of despair. The most significant institutional presence came in the form of Evangelical and Catholic churches (mainly the former) and the state was largely absent. Those same barrios now have an entirely different feel. They have all of the same problems and some of them are worse. But there is a collage of activity and state presence in the form of missions and participatory initiatives. People have a sense of hope and a feeling of inclusion.

Whatever the economic realities might be, it will be hard for any future government to convince average Venezuelans that it doesn’t have the money to provide for its people. Chávez in effect revived the national development project of the first twenty-five years of Venezuelan democracy and made people believe it was possible again. The emotional outpourings we have seen in recent months and will see more of in the coming days are wrongly construed as “irrational.” Many average Venezuelans feel, with good reason, that Chávez improved their lives, gave them optimism and gave them a sense they belonged to a nation. Their emotions are grounded in the most this-worldly, and rational of lived experiences. They feel that Chávez did right by them.

Chávez was also the spark for broad regional changes. He was the first to push forward with policies that demonstrated autonomy from the US, and one of the leaders in the most recent push for regional integration among Latin American countries. After him came a wave of leftist presidents in places like Brazil, Argentina, Boliva and Ecuador who are now carrying this process forward. Chávez’s role in this is often exaggerated. But it was the first few years of his presidency that made it seem possible throughout the region.

More abstractly, the paradoxes and ironies of Chávez’s 14 years as president have renewed discussion about what “democracy” means. While his efforts to deepen political democracy in the first couple of years enjoyed broad consensus, his efforts to extend democracy into social, economic and cultural realms from 2001 on generated the conflict and polarization that still plague Venezuela today. While his attacks on liberal institutions left the international democracy promotion community up in arms, he continually received support from citizens at the polls. While his push for social and economic equality drew the admiration of the international left, pro-Chavez activists often found themselves blushing in the face of crass authoritarianism. Virtually everybody that has paid close attention to Venezuela has been forced to reflect at some point on what counts as democracy and what the goals of democratization should be. (See my review with Dimitris Pantoulas of Venezuela’s democratic institutions which appeared yesterday in World Politics Review.)

Chávez went out with great dignity. Whatever criticisms one might have about his not stepping aside earlier or the lack of transparency surrounding his condition, when he was faced with a last ditch operation to address terminal cancer he returned to Venezuela to name a successor and make clear that the Constitution called for elections if the worst were to happen. Two weeks ago he returned to Venezuela for the last time, to die in his country. Noticeably absent during the whole period of his sickness was the self-pity one might have expected.

The international community needs to give Maduro some time and space to define himself as leader and successor. With elections in thirty days that public definition will come soon enough. Chávez is not an easy act to follow and Maduro’s range of possibilities has been limited with Chávez on his deathbed. What we can see so far in Maduro’s style is a perhaps understandable over-anxiousness about unity, but also a willingness to confront tough issues—including the recent devaluation of the currency. Maduro has stuck close to the official line throughout his career and it is therefore difficult to know where he will go when he himnself is creating the official line. The example of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia shows that a “yes man” can go his own way even when following a highly popular president.