Who Will Replace Chavez as President?

With elections in Venezuela scheduled for next week, Mark Ungar of Brooklyn College offers an analysis of the issues at stake:

Since bursting on the scene with a failed coup in 1992, Hugo Chávez has dominated and altered political and social life in Venezuela. With his death in March, the country now appears directionless.  

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What did not change under Chávez, though, are three features of civil society that will continue influence the country's next leader. The first is executive power, with which Venezuela’s presidents have long been able to dominate politics, legislation and society. From Mexico to Argentina, one of Latin America’s legacies is a prevalence of leaders over institutions, fueled by histories of authoritarianism and chronic imbalances of power marked by weak legislative and judicial branches. As in other countries, executive power in Venezuela is solidified through political parties. In 1958, the Pact of Punto Fijo among Venezuela’s main parties—primarily the leftist Acción Democratica (AD) and the rightist Christian Democratic COPEI—was an agreement to share power, control elections and oversee the state bureaucracy. While it helped stabilize the country enough to survive threats from both the left and right, the pact also became a foundation of nepotism and bureaucracy that, lubricated by oil money, continued until the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s plunged the country into economic and political chaos. The two parties then entered a protracted death spiral, beginning with national riots in 1989 and ending with Chávez’s 1998 election. But with Chávez’s strong electoral victories, the use of party power only increased: the new president used his political movement and party coalitions for government appointments, resource allocation and intimidation over the opposition, whose own unscrupulous tactics—such as support for the brief 2002 coup—only served to justify (in the eyes of some) tactics such as packing the Supreme Court and suspending media licenses. 

Executive power is bolstered in Venezuela by the country's abundant oil resources. Despite half-hearted attempts at economic diversification, the country has been dependent on oil since its discovery in the 1920s. Currently accounting for 95 percent of exports and 45 percent of federal budget revenues, it has bankrolled the generous welfare state that Chávez built—along with continuation of a bloated administration. Such reliance on oil has given Venezuela a classic rentier economy, in which state-society relations pivot on official largesse that, when it dries up, reveals the lack of political stability underneath. While Chávez’s large following was undoubtedly devoted to him, it was also a result of extravagant spending that made society dependent on the state instead of on itself.  

A third enduring feature of Venezuelan politics is mobilization. Rapid urbanization and demonstrations in the 1920s led to the formation of the mass-movement AD, which helped Venezuela sustain democracy for decades at a time when it was stifled by military rule on the rest of the continent. The political crises of the 1980s and 1990s continued to make Venezuelan society highly politicized—even more so in the Chávez era, marked by unprecedented polarization and nearly annual elections for officials, constitutions and referenda. 

These three features—executive power, oil dependence and citizen mobilization—will all be double-edged swords for the next president. Either winner in April’s special election—interim President Nicolás Maduro or opposition candidate Henrique Capriles—will have to quickly and skillfully open new channels for the invariable disaffection in ways that boost rather than undermine the country. The sharp declines in oil production, along with decreasing dependence by regular buyers such as the United States, will mean pressure to limit subsidies, such as the ones that have kept gasoline cheaper than water—and whose proposed reduction triggered the 1989 riots. The new president will also have to re-frame the antagonism and division that has framed public discourse and participation. Chávez’s ceaseless attacks against the “oligarchs” and “pitiyanquis” may have been stereotypically leftist and needlessly antagonistic, but they reflected the undeniable reality that a wealthy and oil producing state had, under its traditional leaders, left well over half of the national population in poverty through the 1990s. I lived in several of Caracas’s low-income barrios throughout that decade; the levels of alienation and frustration among the city’s poor remained feverish. And while poverty has plummeted, violence crime and other social ills have skyrocketed. Given the need to govern without the charisma of Chávez, the next president will need to work to address those problems in part by closing societal divisions in both rhetoric and practice. 

Another crucial but difficult step in that uphill struggle will be infusing accountability and transparency into a system that has it on paper but not in practice. In addition to continuing guarantees such as judicial independence, Chávez’s 1999 constitution created a fourth “Citizens Branch” comprised of accountability agencies such as the national ombudsman. However, nearly all of the major mechanisms of oversight have been dominated by chavistas. As in the past, oil money and executive power also contorted most state and civil society organizations into pro-regime (or at least uncritical) agents; most prominently and potentially dangerous for democracy, the military was the primary recipient of such power transfers. It is a tall order, in short, but the new president will need to gradually begin a de-politization to begin addressing the serious economic, social and structural challenges facing Venezuela.

Key to that effort will be the country’s principal non-state institutions. One of the most prominent is the Catholic Church. On one level, Chávez heeded the church’s long-standing call for addressing endemic poverty, which he did with more perseverance than any of his predecessors. He also supported church teaching on abortion and marriage. As his power grew, though, he reacted strongly and often furiously to criticisms from the Venezuelan church. In 2008 he called Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino, archbishop of Venezuela, a “troglodyte,” and said he would remain distant from the church. More incendiary were his comments that the pope “is no ambassador of Jesus on earth.” Institutionally, he weakened the church through his educational overhauls, in which school curricula was re-geared toward his socialist revolution. As a foundational part of Venezuelan life that was subject to Chávez’s power, propaganda and policies—in sometimes positive ways but usually very politicized ones—the church symbolizes the task ahead in terms of bringing reconciliation to a deeply divided country. An influential force in Venezuelan society that preaches the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, the church is well-positioned to work with the new government toward these vital goals.

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