Venezuelan presidential elections will take place on April 14, the first in almost 20 years not to feature Hugo Chávez. Such is what the Economist calls Latin Americans’ “necrophiliac streak”, the next leader will be seen in the context of Chávez, just as Chávez can usefully be seen in the context of those before him. Venezuela’s political past is one of recurrent themes, and there is little to suggest these themes will disappear.
With the exception of a brief period of democracy in the 1940’s Venezuela was ruled by dictators until 1958. These dictators were often caudillo figures, who played on a cult of personality and despised opposition to their rule. Some were seen positively, whilst others weren’t, like Juan Vicente Gómez who spent little on health or education and had critics silenced with death, prison or exile. The idea of the authoritarian leader was defended by Laureano Vallenilla Lanz in his work Cesarismo Democrático on the grounds that such a leader fitted the particular circumstances of Venezuela. (This is similar to how Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies were justified: that they were necessary in order to enact change.)
When democracy finally came (in a pact called the Punto Fijo, which is the why the era from then up until when Chávez came to power is called puntofijismo) it was on based upon respect for civil liberties, state control of the economy, distributive policies over redistributive ones, and support for the USA in the Cold War. However, the system became dominated by just two parties, Acción Democrática and COPEI. The parties worked closely together, looking for a consensus for big issues and giving the other one a say when in government. This meant both wanted what came to be an exclusive system to remain. Civil organizations belonged to one of the two parties with money distributed along party lines and the urban poor and middle classes were often neglected. After a financial crisis and austerity, and the Caracazo in 1989 (mass rioting and looting leading to the security services killing thousands), this democracy was seen as diseased with corruption and clientelism and fundamentally as being inadequate. Hugo Chávez led an unsuccessful military coup against the (still democratically elected) government in 1992 and was arrested but came into power democratically through winning the 1999 election with broad support (but particularly from the lower classes).
He was never, as some claim, a dictator, having stayed in power through three subsequent elections. Chávez pumped money from the oil industry into projects to improve the lives of the poor (although like in puntofijismo there were claims of clientelism). Notable successes include eradicating illiteracy and increasing citizenship. However, lots of money was wasted and spent in unaccountable ways – a 2011 Reuters investigation found that over half of public investment goes into secret funds controlled by Chávez with no supervision from auditors or congress. Chávez was also very authoritarian. According to Human Rights Watch the government filled the Supreme Court with supporters and the court “largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power, failing to uphold fundamental rights enshrined in Venezuela’s constitution in key cases involving government efforts to limit freedom of expression and association.” It also said the government showed “scant respect for democratic checks and balances.” However, he made himself an idolatry figure for supporters. By the time he was on his deathbed, he resembled a caudillo figure of old. In the quality of the country’s democracy there were also similarities to the dying days of the puntofijismo era. Chávez also left an extremely polarized Venezuela, and this along with the weakening of democratic systems makes it hard to look at Venzuela’s future too positively.
The presidential election is between Nicolás Maduro, acting president and Chávez’s chosen successor, and Henrique Capriles, who fought and lost against Chávez in the 2012 election. Perhaps talking a leaf out of Hugo’s libro, both have focused on the personal rather than the policy. Ideas about how to tackle a faltering economy, high inflation and high crime are lacking as the two make personal slurs against each other. The figure of Chávez looms large. A website, www.madurodice.com, measures the amount of times Maduro has mentioned Chávez in public appearances since the announcement of the latter’s ‘physical disappearance’. At the time of writing the count is at 5,822. He also calls himself Chávez’s son and has named his election team ‘Commando Hugo Chávez’.
It looks like Maduro will win, helped not just by his association with Chávez but also by the benefits of being an incumbent, for example media bias (during the 2012 election campaign the Radio Nacional de Venezuela attacked Capriles for his Jewish heritage). However, he looks likely to be a weak imitator of his idol. He has only risen in popularity since being named heir (last year a poll showed Caplires beating any Chávez supporter). Voters will be voting not for him, but for Chávez. Devoid of the latter’s personality and aura that helped to prolong the regime and keep the various chavista factions together, Maduro will probably struggle when he gets into power and has to forge his own course. Meanwhile, Capriles (“the candidate of the American state department” according to Maduro) modelled himself as effectively on the soft-left during the 2012 election campaign: someone who would be more market-friendly but would use the state to reduce inequality (although there were suspicions he was concealing intentions to pursue more neoliberal policies). It would probably be better for Venezuela if he won; he would also restore some balance to the chavista dominance of public institutions.
Nevertheless, unlike up until a few generations ago at least Venezuelans can vote in 2013, even if they seem incapable of escaping the patterns of the country’s political past.