Succumbing to cancer after several months of treatment, President Hugo Chávez died yesterday, ending his 14-year rule and leaving a radically transformed Venezuela with uncertain days ahead [NYT]. For now, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will assume power for 30 days until a new election is held. Looking over the past few decades, Venezuelan blogger Francisco Toro argues that his country paid a huge price for El Comandante’s legacy:
[D]ebasement of the public sphere set the stage for the million insanities that came to pass for public policy making in the Chávez era: the gasoline given away almost for free by a government that loves to excoriate others’ environmental records, the ruinous subsidy to importers and to Venezuelan tourists abroad implicit in the exchange control system; the unblushing blacklisting of millions of dissidents; the manically self-destructive insistence of piling on tens of billions in unsustainable foreign debt at a time of historically very high oil prices; the nonchalant use of imprisonment without trial to cow dissidents and intimidate opponents; the secret spending of a hundred billion dollar slushfund beyond any form of scrutiny; the incessant repression of independent trade unionists; the botched nationalization and virtual destruction of industry after industry, from steel — to electricity — to cement — to the agro-food sector – the list goes on and on.
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is far more positive about Chávez:
The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe. In that period Chávez won 56% of the vote in 1998, 60% in 2000, survived a coup d’état in 2002, got over 7m votes in 2006 and secured 54.4% of the vote last October. He was a rare thing, almost incomprehensible to those in the US and Europe who continue to see the world through the Manichean prism of the cold war: an avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat.
Now that he’s gone, the question is whether “chavismo” – a muscular and internationalist push for socialism in Latin America – will outlive Chávez. Jon Lee Anderson sets the scene:
What is left, instead, after Chávez? A gaping hole for the millions of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans, mostly poor, who viewed him as a hero and a patron, someone who “cared” for them in a way that no political leader in Latin America in recent memory ever had. For them, now, there will be a despair and an anxiety that there really will be no one else like him to come along, not with as big a heart and as radical a spirit, for the foreseeable future. And they are probably right. But it’s also Chávism that has not yet delivered.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez suspects that Venezuelan “chavismo” will die with the man:
Come what may, domestically the party may yet be able to trudge along in slow decline for a period — perhaps eventually splitting into several independent parties that sporadically cooperate (much like the Venezuelan opposition does now). Yet without Chávez, the international side of the revolution — on which he has staked much of his legacy — cannot last.
Recently the former minister of Trade and Industry, Moisés Naím, predicted a crisis to follow Chávez’s death:
Crushing headaches will soon be inevitable across the country, including within the private sector but especially among the poor. President Chávez has bequeathed the nation an economic crisis of historic proportions. The crisis includes a fiscal deficit approaching 20 percent of the economy (in the cliff-panicking United States it is 7 percent), a black market where a U.S. dollar costs four times more than the government-determined exchange rate, one of the world’s highest inflation rates, a swollen number of public sector jobs, debt 10 times larger than it was in 2003, a fragile banking system and the free fall of the state-controlled oil industry, the country’s main source of revenue.
David Blair warns of the consequences for Venezuela’s oil economy especially, which constitutes 96% of export earnings:
Chavez toughened the terms for foreign energy companies, causing many to leave. The result was that oil production fell from 3.1 million barrels per day in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2011, representing a cumulative loss of tens of billions of dollars. While betting Venezuela’s future on oil, Chavez also placed his country on a path of steadily declining output. Mr Maduro must try to reverse this disastrous combination; otherwise the social programmes that were Chavez’s great achievement will eventually become unaffordable. And there lies the rub: reviving production would mean accepting the expertise of the foreign oil companies that Chavez so fiercely denounced.
Simon Tilsdall hopes fresh leadership in Venezuela will give Obama a chance for a broader rapprochement in Latin America:
Whether the opportunity is grasped depends partly on Maduro, a Chávez loyalist but a reputed pragmatist with close ties to Raúl Castro in Cuba. Yet it depends even more on Obama, whose first term, after a promising start, ended up perpetuating Washington’s historical neglect of Latin America. He now has a chance to do better. The political climate seems propitious. Economic and cultural ties are also strengthening dramatically. Trade between the US and Latin America grew by 82% between 1998 and 2009. In 2011 alone, exports and imports rose by a massive 20% in both directions.
(Photo: People react to the death of Hugo Chaves outside the military hospital on March 05, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. By Gregorio Marrero/LatinContent/Getty Images)