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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez dies. What about Venezuela's democracy?

Now that Hugo Chavez is dead, Venezuelans face a dark and uncertain future, whatever their political party, ideological tendency or socio-economic class. There is no country in this hemisphere where the divisions run deeper, the animosities and distrust are more strongly felt – or where the potential for civil unrest and violence is higher. That is the true legacy of Comandante Chavez.

Chavez was a army officer-turned-revolutionary and a charismatic leader of historic proportions whose impact inside Venezuela, and upon a rainbow of vastly different and disunited Latin American and Caribbean nations, will survive him. We just do not know how. But he also was a megalomaniacal military strongman who believed himself to be the modern incarnation of Simon Bolivar, a 21st Century “Libertador” of his people and all the Americas. Chavez was the latest in a direct line of Latin American caudillos who trace their political heritage to Bolivar and the other leaders of the Latin American wars of independence. Others include Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina, Alfredo Stroesnner in Paraguay, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, even Francisco Franco in Spain.

Chavez's rise to power also was the natural outgrowth of Venezuela’s endemic poverty, its widespread racism overlaid with extreme inequality of wealth distribution, a personalist-oriented political culture, and a history of political instability and violent upheavals. It is no coincidence that Chavez’s ascension to the presidency came largely because he was imprisoned by former President Carlos Andres Perez after leading an unsuccessful military coup d’etat in 1992. He became an instant hero, and today 50 percent of Venezuelans still worship him for what he did during his presidency to make life easier for those on the bottom rungs of the income and wealth ladders.

Trouble is, there is another half of the country: the middle class and the elites. United behind one candidate, Henry Capriles, the opposition came as close to winning last October as could be expected, given that Chavez and his party dominated television and radio, inundated the country with ads and used massive state spending to shore up support. This half of the population will be glad to see Chavez go, though there is great uncertainty about what the future holds. Chavez’s hand-designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, does not have what it takes to run the country without significant help from the military and the police, including the Cuban-assisted secret police.

There is are many risks and much fear regarding the near-term future of the country. Venezuela’s constitution states that a new election is to be held within 30 days of the death of a president.  There are, of course, wildly differing interpretations of those words. The country is deeply divided between those who supported Chavez and those who did not. Many of those who did support the government benefitted directly from that support: with state jobs, state subsidies, housing, health care, etc., not to mention widespread corruption. Those who did not support Chavez have been hurt in many ways, though the resilience and power of the wealthiest of his opponents, such as former presidential candidate Capriles, as well as the old-money aristocracy, are hard to overstate.

Hugo Chavez is admired by millions of Latin Americans for standing tall against the arrogance and ignorance of the United States in its dealings with the region, and for making at least a stated effort to address poverty in his homeland. His very public battle against cancer, though lost in the end, was brave and his death a tragic loss to his family, friends and allies.

But the real tragedy of Chavez’s life and and his government is that he ruled Venezuela in such a way as to  undermine the rule of law and those institutions (the courts, the legislature) that are the underpinnings of any democracy. It doesn’t matter what the policies of a government – whether those of a far-right Stalin or Franco, or of a far-left Castro -- if you govern without respect for the rule of law, you undermine the ability of your regime to peacefully transition from one leader or group of leaders to another. Chavez respected only those who agreed with him and his “Bolivarian socialist revolution.” Those who didn’t were harassed, jailed, fined, put out of business,  forced into exile, or worse. 

I am afraid that the coming months in Venezuela will prove once again that revolution founded on the will of an individual cannot survive, whether it is Marx, Lenin, Mao, or Hugo Chavez. Only institutions - stable, flexible and forgiving – outlast the people who form them. Today, let us hope that Venezuelans can find peaceful, nonviolent ways through the current uncertainty, and move forward to build the democracy and the just society they all deserve.

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