Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death will most likely mark the beginning of the end of Venezuela’s political clout in Latin America, but his influence inside Venezuela is likely to last for many decades.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in the international media that Chávez was the political heir of Cuba’s guerrilla leader-turned-president Fidel Castro, the late Venezuelan president will probably go down in history as a political phenomenon closer to that of late Argentine strongman Juan D. Perón.
Like Perón, Chávez was a military officer and coup plotter who first flirted with fascism, later turned to the left, and once in power gave millions to the poor thanks to a boom in world commodity prices, which set him apart from previous Venezuelan presidents who had only paid lip service to the country’s poverty-stricken masses. And like Perón, Chávez was a narcissist — he once used the word “I” 489 times in just one speech, on Jan 15, 2011 — who built a personality cult around himself, and impulsively gave away billions of dollars at home and abroad without any accountability, at the expense of destroying his country’s institutions and much of the economy.
Chávez’s influence in Latin America during his 13 years in power grew in direct proportion to world oil prices.
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When he took office in 1999, oil prices hovered around $9 a gallon. When oil prices started rising gradually to more than $80 a barrel in the years that followed, Chávez started bankrolling loyalist politicians in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other Latin American countries, and ultimately built his ALBA bloc of Latin American allies that followed his narcissist-Leninist model.
By 2006, Chávez was giving away up to $3.7 billion a year in Latin America — compared to the Bush administration’s $1.2 billion — to buy political influence as he was drumming up support for his unsuccessful bid for a Venezuela seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Many of his grandiose money pledges never materialized — like a pipeline that was supposed to go from Caracas to Buenos Aires, which skeptics at the time branded the “Hugoduct” — and some of his pledges for huge infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia drew criticism at home, where roads and bridges were crumbling.
But Chávez’s influence abroad began after oil prices reached a record $146 a barrel in 2008. Since then, and especially after Chávez was diagnosed with a never-revealed form of cancer in mid-2011 and oil prices fell further, Chávez’s petro-dollar generosity has been confined to Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and a few Caribbean countries.
Now, with Venezuela’s economy in near chaos, a 30 percent inflation rate and oil prices unlikely to reach their previous records in the near future, Venezuela will have to give up its regional ambitions, for the simple reason that it has run out of money.
And regardless of who will run Venezuela in the future, the days of oil-based populist megalomania are likely over because of global trends in the energy industry.
According to most forecasts, the United States will replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in five years, which will cause a reduction in U.S. oil imports and a decline in world oil prices. This will make it hard for Chávez’s successors to keep bankrolling Venezuela’s radical populist allies in the region.
But at home in Venezuela, “Chavismo” will probably remain alive as the biggest political force for generations to come. Because Chávez’s years in power coincided with the biggest oil boom in Venezuela’s recent history, and because Chávez gave away so much money to the poor, he is more likely to be remembered as a “champion of the poor” than as the populist who destroyed the country’s private sector, scared away investments, and turned Venezuela more oil-dependent than ever.
From now on, much like happened in Argentina after Perón’s death, most presidential hopefuls will declare themselves “Chavistas,” even if they despised the late military coup plotter-turned-president.
And much like happened in Argentina in recent decades, we will see “Chavista” politicians of all colors: radical leftists, moderate, centrist and rightists. In his never-ending speeches, which sometimes lasted more than six hours, they will find enough memorable quotes to support almost any political theory.
Guillermo Lousteau, a professor at Florida International University who heads the Inter-American Institute of Democracy, believes that Chávez will go down in history not so much like Perón, but like Ernesto “Che” Guevara — a cult figure whose influence today is more romantic than political.
“Chávez will become a cultural icon: we will see T-shirts with Chávez’s face, much like we see T-shirts with Che Guevara’s face, but his influence won’t go farther than that,” Lousteau told me.
“Chávez is no longer alive to keep the Chavista movement united, like Perón was after he was thrown out of office,” Lousteau said. “Without a charismatic leader, and with a deteriorating economy, Chavismo will implode.”
My opinion: Latin America’s political cycles tend to change every dozen years, and Chávez’s death — alongside stagnant commodity prices — is likely to accelerate the waning days of Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” in Latin America.
Much like we had military dictatorships in the 1970s, social-democracies in the 1980s, pro-free market governments in the 1990s’, and “Chavismo” in the 2000s, we may be entering a new decade of something different — hopefully democratic pragmatism.
But Chávez’s undeserved image as the region’s biggest champion of the poor — in fact, countries like Peru and Chile reduced poverty more than Venezuela in recent years, and without weakening their democracies — will have a lasting negative impact on Venezuela. As often happens in commodity-rich countries, populist leaders thrive during booms in world commodity booms. Then, when commodity prices go down and they leave office — whether they are thrown out or, as in Chávez’s case, die in office — their successors have to take unpopular economic measures, and the former populist leaders’ followers can say, “You were better off when we were in power.”
Venezuela will be no exception to Latin America’s commodity curse. Chávez’s populism will remain popular for decades. It will take a lot of time — and education — to convince many Venezuelans that Chavismo was “bread for today, hunger for tomorrow,’’ and that the most successful countries are those that have strong institutions, rather than strong men.