The left in Latin America had struggled for a rebirth. The days of CIA- backed coups and assassination of leftists have calmed somewhat.
The longstanding fight against imperialism has seen a change in the last decade with the resurgence of the left. Hugo Chavez, arguably the catalyst for this renaissance, enjoyed three terms in office because of his work within Venezuela. His base of support and successful model of socialism helped establish a base from it spread. Within the oil rich nation, Chavismo can be described as a set of ideals and management style which places importance on equality, social participation, and central, powerful, proactive government based around one personality: Hugo Chavez.
As his fight against cancer grew, the question of Chavismo’s future without the man that defined it has grown increasingly important.
His passing opens a door for a change in leadership, but will the vision of Chavismo endure at the hands of future governments?
Comfortable victories in what was recently his fourth election are a testament to the success of his terms in power. What drove the movement was deeply rooted in the revolutionary sect Chavez founded while in the army, named the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, or MBR-200. The movement eventually went on to evolve into the Fifth Republic Party, or MVR. This transition was due to the increased call for change around the country after a string of corrupt governments.
Seizing the moment, a tremendous value was placed on the rural populations and the urban poor that went on to fuel the movement for another decade and a half. The anti-traditional party model was innovative and typical of the Movement. Leading up to the first election in ’98, face-to-face engagement and clear communication gathered political momentum.
Already known to many Venezuelans after the failed coup in ’92, the extensive travel he undertook to dialogue with potential supporters is reflective of the later social successes of Chavismo. This understanding between people and leadership defined its existence.
The biggest victory that would do well to last is the redistribution platform. Reaching millions of poor and cutting the poverty rate by 20 percent is a notable success, but is the result of a powerful methodology. Many leftist governments have struggled to redistribute wealth, land, or other commodities fairly on a mass scale. The potential for dissatisfaction and unrest is high and diminishing support is the result.
The Bolivarian Missions allowed for state oil revenues to reach those in need. It also came in the form of healthcare, employment training, food, and education. Local cooperatives were also able to apply for funds based on what community projects they decided to pursue. As with the first election in ’98, grassroots involvement and dialogue founded the strong base for Chavismo to develop into a constructive agenda.
Social inclusion best characterizes what defined Chavismo domestically. The hierarchical top-down format adopted in most Western-style countries is reversed. In what was largely a decentralized structure, municipal, and regional governments were permitted a licence to control local affairs and decision making. Chavez’s state centralization helped create clear policy objectives resulting in social involvement that empowered people and presented a medium through which to communicate.
The criticisms toward Chavez are many. Accusations of judicial interference, media tampering, even dictatorship, have been thrown around at times. The Western perspective quickly demonizes Chavez, but the political climate in Latin America is drastically different from Western-style democracy in structure and purpose. If anything, Western democracies can learn from the importance placed on participation long after Election Day.
Venezuela under Chavez often attracted headlines from Western media. Criticism of Venezuela’s foreign aspirations appeared throughout his time in government. After some soul searching, MVR found new life once it expanded its global profile.
A growing relationship with Cuba was a first step in an alliance that acknowledged similarities in ideals. An economic relationship with Iran was a major step in assertion of power contrary to US imperialism in the Middle East and Latin America. Political relationships with Russia and China tightened with deals that would see Venezuelan oil shipped to their fast moving economies.
Making allies that disagreed with the ‘American Empire’, as Chavez describes it, defined a tough foreign policy agenda with connections to his early career. His education and time spent in the military had a considerable effect on those originally part of the MBR-200 who would take positions in office. Rhetoric describing the “never ending fight” is synonymous with the fiery speaker. The coup in ’02 led to failure because of soldier loyalties toward Chavez. But, the present day open declaration of military support for Chavismo bids caution. There is a chance a future leader may harness military support and abuse the relationship for the purpose of eroding democratic integrity.
Chavismo extended onto the rest of the continent drawing from Bolivarian ideals. Integration was a principles stressed in the beliefs of the 19th century general Bolivar, who awoke South America from imperialist Spain and defeated colonialism.
The infectious nature of victories within Venezuela allowed the movement to spread and public endorsements for candidates helped leftists sweep to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and elsewhere. Similar policies in dealing with issues regarding national sovereignty helped combat US presence. Financially, this alliance helped reduce IMF involvement by reducing and paying off poisonous loans.
The outlined successes are largely due to the connection between Chavez and the ideology he pursed that reflects his name. It is synonymous with an aggressive style of government and putting the interests of his people before political gamesmanship.
Bolivarian ideals inspired and dictated the path embarked upon with relative success.
How much of this success is due to Chavez himself? As the face of MBR-200, accepting responsibility for the failed military coup put Chavez on the national stage when he appeared on national TV claiming responsibility. Being the face of change was of great importance as he campaigned and spoke around the country from the back of a truck. The charisma and confidence are evident in any speech or verbal exchange. The larger than life personality, cult hero appeal cannot be replaced.
What is Chavismo without its creator? The connection between the two almost seems too great for someone to replicate. Much of the social success and jobs are directly tied to oil. Cash flows related to any commodity are risky especially when the social consequence of a price drop can be so great.
The lack of institutionalization of the many social projects makes them vulnerable. The threat of further corruption within state distribution channels can undermine the social milestones accomplished. Participation and inclusion between elections are thus very valuable to the millions of poor people. It defines the organic support and the participatory democratic system essential to the future of Chavismo.
There is no denial of the clear link between Chavez and the success of Chavismo. The guiding light that can take the idealism forward are principles which motivated the ’92 coup and brought him to mass popularity. Bolivarian inspiration that values human rights, combats mass poverty, and encourage Latin American integration, to name a few, can be carried forward by any conscious leader. What is characterized as Chavismo may not continue without its leader, but the founding ideals that have been embedded in all facets of Venezuelan society over the past 20 years will serve as a path that begs to be followed by any future elect.