LATIN AMERICA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez
, March 30, 2013
Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), who died on March 5 — the 60th anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s death — made five bids to lead his country.
The first, a failed 1992 coup d’état, led to his jailing.
The plotters making this bid, dubbed Operation Zamora, called themselves the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 and claimed to be inspired by three 19th-century historical Venezuelans, Ezequiel Zamora, Simón Bolivar and Simón Rodríguez.
After being released in 1994 Chávez undertook a 100-day whistlestop tour of Venezuela, followed by visits to several South American countries and particularly to communist Cuba to meet Fidel Castro.
They spent several days together, after which the budding firebrand described Cuba’s Marxist dictator as someone akin to a father figure.
In 1998 Chávez changed tack, opting instead for electoral politics, and won 56 per cent of the vote in the presidential contest against Henrique Römer.
Chávez went on to win three more elections, in 2000 increasing his percentage of the vote to 60 per cent, and in 2006 to 63 per cent. Last year, against Henrique Capriles, he won 55 per cent.
Although easily winning elections, after each one he would face a coup that would see him briefly deposed. In early 2002, anti-Chávez mass protests degenerated into gun fights and killings that provoke some military officers, with civilian backing, to mount a coup.
A fearful Chávez meekly stood aside. But a wave of counter-protests backing him led to his return. He initially moderated his hardline socialistic path. He steadily increased military reserve numbers, acquired more weapons and established a military government, but one that he saw as helping the poor.
Chávez’s 14-year-long presidency was characterised by a personality cult. Chávez, wearing his trademark military red beret, eschewed a conciliatory gradualist reform path in favour of a confrontationalist approach based on his revolutionary creed known as Chavismo.
Chávez sought to emulate Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Argentina’s Juan Peron, who fundamentally altered their respective countries.
Kirk Hawkins, of Brigham Young University in Utah, observed: “Chavismo is clearly a populist phenomenon. It relies on charismatic linkages between voters and politicians, a relationship largely unmediated by any institutionalised party.
“It also bases itself on a powerful Manichaean discourse of ‘the people versus the elite’ that naturally encourages an ‘anything goes’ attitude among Chávez’s supporters.”
Chávez’s pursued a radical socialistic program, complete with expropriations and nationalisations of industries, including his country’s oil-producing sector. It caused a slump in living standards.
Moises Naim, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “Chavismo depended on an economic model that was clearly unsustainable, that is already showing strains, that will make and force whoever is in charge to make very fundamental economic changes that will be very painful to the Venezuelan people.”
However, Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of Latin American History at Southern California’s Pomona College, warned that Chavismo had staying power and could survive its creator.
He said: “The reality is that there have been fundamental changes in the political culture in the political landscape, and that change has also been seen throughout South America. There is no going back. The Venezuela of 2013 isn’t the Venezuela of 1998.”
Like Castroism, Chavismo displays a hostile attitude towards the United States, which is regularly pilloried as an evil imperialist force.
Chávez’s funeral witnessed an enormous outpouring of grief by his followers. High-profile mourners included Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who kissed Chávez’s flag-draped coffin, and Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus.
But tens of thousands of Venezuelans refused to attend, hoping their turbulent leader’s passing means a return to normalised governance.
US President Obama sent congressman Gregory W. Meeks (Democrat, New York), and William Delahunt (one-time Democratic congressman of Massachusetts), both of whom had had dealings with Chávez’s Venezuela.
Significantly, Chávez’s vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, was sworn in as president before the funeral despite the constitution saying a presidential election must be held within 30 days.
Most opposition politicians, however, avoided the funeral, and Henrique Capriles declared that Maduro’s swearing-in was wrong.
The New York Times reported Capriles as drawing attention to the provisions of Venezuela’s Constitution, and saying Maduro should take over only presidential duties while retaining the title of vice-president.
The New York Times said that the Venezuelan Constitution “clearly bars a vice-president from running for president, meaning that under Capriles’ interpretation, Maduro would have to resign from the government in order to run.”
“Nicolás, no one elected you president,” a combative Capriles told Maduro.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.
Kirk Hawkins, “Populism in Venezuela: the rise of Chavismo”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 6, December 2003, pp.1137-1160.
Nina Porzucki, “What is Chavismo ideology without Chavez?”, PRI’s The World (Public Radio International), March 6, 2013.
William Neuman, “Dignitaries pay Chávez tribute, as Venezuelans express grief and misgivings”, New York Times, March 9, 2013.