With only days left before Venezuelans go to the polls to elect their first president in the post-Hugo Chavez era, the two contenders, interim Vice President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition leader Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, are carrying out their final rallies, declarations and mandatory campaign promises to clinch vital supporters. While Maduro seems to have a comfortable lead, some polls give Capriles a glimmer of hope that victory is possible. Regardless who wins on Sunday, this may be the time to step back and simply reflect on the fact that this is the first time Venezuelans will not see Chavez on an electoral ballot since 1998.
Hugo Chavez at the Micro Level
Over the past weeks, there has been an abundance of analyses that have been published about the legacy of Hugo Chavez and his chavista vision for the hemisphere. Much has been written about how he changed Latin American politics, as he was a fierce opponent of Washington’s influence in the Western Hemisphere. This is best exemplified by his support for the creation of multinational organizations, which did not have the U.S. or Canada as members, such as ALBA, CELAC and UNASUR.
At the domestic level, Chavez’s election signaled a change of the guard regarding the political parties that had ruled Venezuela for decades before him. His support base depended on the masses of lower-class Venezuelan citizens who constantly voted for him, allowing him to re-write the constitution and permitting him to be re-elected. Meanwhile, his party, the PSUV, lostlegislative elections in 2010, arguably exemplifying thatchavismo, contrary to what Chavez and his supporters said, revolved more around Chavez’s persona rather than the party’s ideology or other party leaders. And in spite of the numerous criticisms directed against Chavez throughout his tenure (the author of this commentary has previously critiqued the Venezuelan leader’s friendship with Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori), the truth is that the majority of Venezuelans voted for him again and again. If he was alive and ran for a new presidential term in 2018, he probably would have been elected.
I am reminded of the Federalist Papers, which said in #51, “if a majority [is] united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” Was it democratic and fair for the Venezuelan minorities (in this case the middle/upper socioeconomic classes), that one individual remained in power for over a decade because he was popular with the poorer masses? Perhaps not, but then again, for decades the majority of the Venezuelan population had its fate decided by the upper classes who controlled the political parties and government.
The Democratic Caudillo
In a previous commentary for VOXXI, I discussedcontinuismo in Latin America. This term refers to hemispheric heads of state remaining in power for long periods of times, often by changing their countries constitution and rigging elections, whether they were popular among the masses or not. In the past couple of decades, a new type of caudillos emerged in the region. Besides Chavez, we saw the rise of popular leaders like Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe (a fierce Chavez opponent), Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Their popularities allowed them to modify their national constitutions and also win re-elections. Arguably, Uribe could still be in power today; he was certainly popular enough in Colombia to have won a third presidential term, if he had been constitutionally allowed to run. It is ironic that even though Uribe and Chavez did not particularly like each other, as the two countries came close to war in a2008 incident, Uribe could have followed Chavez’s footsteps to remain in power, riding on his popularity. The term “democratic caudillo” probably sounds like an oxymoron, but then again, Latin America tends to be the land of the politically bizarre.
Growing up in Venezuela sans Chavez
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how this will be the first time since 1998 that Chavez is not on a presidential electoral ballot in the Venezuela. When scholars, academics and journalists write an article, which mentions the years that a head of state was in power, the reader may just take this as a fact. However, let us reiterate that we are talking about a head of state that ruled from 1999 to 2013. A whole generation of Venezuelan children have grown up only seeing Chavez as president, but this will change beginning Sunday. Of course, other presidents have ruled their countries for much longer (i.e. the recently deposed leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya), and the change of the guard from Chavez to the next president (most likely Maduro) may not provoke any Venezuelan to have a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, this is still an important psychological milestone.
While I was writing this commentary, I spoke to my Venezuelan friends, and I asked them if it feels weird that they will go to the polls very soon and will not see Chavez’s name for the first time in their adult life. One noted that she has voted six times since she was 18, and that today Venezuelans have adjusted not only to voting quite frequently but also to the constant confrontation and discrimination in her country’s national politics.
The overwhelmingly response to my query was that “Chavez aún está en todas partes” (Chavez is still everywhere). They were referring to not only Chavez’s legacy regarding leaving behind him a polarized military or the fact that the country’s governorships and the National Assembly are still overwhelmingly chavistas. My friends also referred to the simple fact that Chavez’s image is indeed everywhere throughout Venezuela, for example, due to the plethora of graffiti made of Chavez’s image that decorates the facades of walls. Furthermore, another friend argued that there is now not just a power vacuum but also a social one, as people will inevitably compare future leaders with how Chavez would have done things – Chavez supporters tend to say “Maduro no es Chavez” (Maduro isn’t Chavez) or “en nombre de nuestro comandante” (in the name of our commander). A simple sign of how Venezuela, particularly its citizens, will move into a post-Chavez future may be exemplified if the numerous Chavez murals are ever painted over.