The Chavez Disaster: A Brief Recapitulation / Dimas Castellanos

The amazing results of the Venezuela elections were unexpected. Hugo Chavez’s government has just lost the complete control he held over the National Assembly for a decade, making it impossible, from now on, to pass new laws that require the approval of parliament without consent of the opposition, which limits their pretensions re-election.

The centuries of social injustice, lack of democracy, warlordism, violence and government corruption, exacerbated by the failure of developmental projects and neoliberalism generated in Venezuela a degree of social discontent that manifested itself in several attempts to repeat the experience of the Cuban revolution. Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, after failing in a coup attempt in 1992, tried to come to power through elections, and in the 1998 elections presented himself with a nationalist message and captured a large segment of the population dissatisfied with the existing inequalities. Upon assuming the presidency in 1999, Chávez announced a “peaceful and democratic revolution” and called for a referendum to amend the Constitution, which, when approved, strengthened presidential power, eliminated the Senate, took power from the unicameral legislature in the Assembly and established national and greater state control of economic activity and the media.

In 2001 Chávez called for the creation of the “Bolivarian Circles,” a copy of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Cuba, and with aggressive language began to blame everything bad on the “external enemy.” To be reelected in 2002 for another six-year term, the President announced a profound transformation of the economic and social structures of the country and requested special powers from the National Assembly to legislate by decree in economic, social and public administration matters, which generated a wave of strikes and clashes with the opposition, which described Chavez’s measures as dictatorial. Violence and civil disobedience led the coup that overthrew Chavez in 2002 followed almost immediately by his return to power. However, the persistence of his intentions to perpetuate his power, led again in the same year, to military and civilian demonstrations against him, including the taking of the Plaza Altamira in Caracas and the general strike, including employees of the PDVSA oil company who demanded the resignation of the President. The response was the laying off of thousands of workers who supported the strike. The climate of violence created continued until 2003, when thanks to the mediation of the OAS, the Carter Center and “friends,” the government and the opposition signed an agreement.

Returning to the non-violent path, the opposition opted to call for a recall referendum, collected the required signatures and the National Electoral Council announced a referendum for August 2004. At that time, Chavez has concentrated his efforts on the most marginalized and those who did not go to the polls in previous elections. The result was 5,553,209 votes (59.06% of those cast), almost two million more than in the elections of 2000, while the opposition gained more votes than previously as well, but their growth was lower than that obtained by the President.

In 2006, Chavez called for a consultative referendum to amend 69 articles of the Constitution in order to increase his powers, however, most said NO to the reform; but winning again in 2008 regional elections, the President took his success and once again urged the National Assembly to out forward another referendum in 2009, this time to reform a single article, which would allow his re-election in 2012, which he won with about 55% of the vote.

The Venezuelan president, submerged in his desire to remain in power, lost sight of the fact that electoral victories are nothing more than a challenge and an opportunity. That is, success is measured not by majority vote but by the structural changes intended to address the accumulated debt of social justice and participatory democracy, as demonstrated by Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, who proposed by social justice to increased production, but did not take the wealth of the owners for redistribution to the dispossessed.

In Venezuela, although oil hit a price that exceeded $144 per barrel, GDP declined, inflation rose, the real value of wages fell, while corruption and violence soared. In the end, Chavez was unable to transform the revolutionary populism into effective action, while the Venezuelans have learned to make use of effectively institutionalized democratic mechanisms. The mixture of demagoguery, militarism, aggressive language and control of political power, and his self designation as the “Bolívar” of today, is a new aspiration to totalitarianism in a region where this style is simply exhausted.

The result is clear: the populist caudillo can not find the solution of the backwardness of Latin America, which explains why the percentage of the population does not share Chavez’s policies has held steady in the ongoing elections at about 40%, preventing the government from reaching the two-thirds of the Assembly needed to pass anything they propose. Government and Opposition were tied with regard to the elected representatives in the Latin American Parliament (five for each side) and in terms of popular vote, the opposition for the first time pulled off a dead heat, which predicts that attempts to re-elect the President will fail.

What happened in Venezuela contains at least seven valuable lessons:

1. Venezuela has been an important demonstration of accepting, at each opportunity, the results of elections, which is a test of maturity, and a guarantee of social peace and future prospects.

2. The division of votes in the recent electoral process, split about half each between Government and Opposition, both legitimizes each to the other and Venezuela and the world, which prevents both parties speaking for all the people of Venezuela.

3. Chavez, in his quest to develop a revolution in the image and likeness of Cuba, and making use of the additional powers granted him, limited, but could not sweep away, the existing civic spaces, mechanism and procedures. It is a lesson: the establishment of a revolution, albeit through the ballot box, has to be constantly revalidated by the polls.

4. The attempt to lead modern nations as a personal cult under the hegemony of one party over others, leads to totalitarian governments that ultimately deny the freedoms in the name of which came they to power.

5. If the loss of control of the National Assembly is not surprising, nor will Chavez’s failure be in the 2012 presidential election. His possible re-election depends on the willingness to transform revolutionary populism into something positive and permanent, something nearly impossible and too late.

6. Venezuelans, for or against Chavez, have learned to make use of democratic mechanisms institutionalized, which is a valuable civics lesson, especially for the Cubans, who have no such mechanisms and institutions.

7. What is happening in Venezuela will have an impact on the new Cuban scenario, characterized by timid reforms inside and search for outside funding sources, which will force the acceleration of the process of change if they don’t want the outcome to be similar to that which caused the demise of socialism in the Soviet block, because the current terms of trade with Venezuela are very fragile, since they are based on a political relationship. At the same time it indicates the way forward for Cuba — the only country in the region without legal opposition and the support of elections — with regards to the public policy debate and the winds blowing in the region.

September 28, 2010