Chronicles of a death unforetold by R. Guy Emerson

ANCLAS Research Group

I was in Caracas mid last year, in the hope of seeing Chávez speak on May Day. However, with the President then undergoing radiotherapy in Cuba these hopes were quickly dashed. Regardless, I went along to the 500,000-strong rally to look and learn. I got off at the newly named Miranda metro station – in honour of one of the plethora of independence heroes frequently evoked – and immediately heard the chanting of the Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV).

Amid the fanfare, concerns were already being voiced about the effects Chávez’s absence would have not only on the May Day celebrations but also on the upcoming elections later that year. While hindsight tells us that Chávez would be elected for another 6-year term, his absence from the celebrations in May raised a number of issues that have again come to the fore in light of the President’s death.

1. Chavismo sin Chávez

After the main speeches I returned to my apartment in Sabana Grande, central Caracas, only to chance upon a Chávez look-alike. Walking the streets in his military regalia and red beret, he treated passers-by to Chávez’s customary hand signals and slogans – ‘somos 10’ ‘pa’lante comandante’ etc. While I immediately got my photo taken with ‘el comandante’, again with hindsight, the presence of the impersonator indirectly evokes issues of continuity in the Bolivarian Revolution.

Viewed historically, there has been a series of examples throughout Latin America where the leader’s death has not meant the end of the movement itself. The current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for example, is but the latest incarnation of Peronism, long after the death of Juan Perón. A similar movement of Chavismo without Chávez can also be foreseen. Such a suggestion is based on the level of social engagement amongst previously disenfranchised groups – a situation not unlike Argentina mid last century. The extent of reforms that have occurred in Venezuela over the past 14 years has not only enfranchised those previously excluded, it has also changed the political landscape of Venezuela. Demonstrative of this shift, even Chávez’s opponent in last year’s election – and likely opposition candidate again – Henrique Capriles Radonski has promised not to overturn many of the social reforms that Chavismo had developed. In the short- to medium-term, then, this suggests a greater sense of continuity than a radical rupture in Venezuela’s political trajectory.

2. The Genie is out of the Bottle

I was walking home ten minutes after having my photo taken with ‘el comandante’ when I noticed that the May Day marchers had actually caught up to me. Still with camera in hand I decided to stick around and see the first contingent or so go past. While I was waiting, a middle-aged woman ahead of the marchers came up to me, presumably thinking I was a journalist given that I was the only white man with a camera in sight. She began outlining how there were many more people in the pro-Chávez demonstrations than in the contra-marches on the other side of the city. Perhaps feeling compelled to convince me of the worth of the Bolivarian Revolution, she then went on to tell me how she had graduated from a series of missions, designed by the Chávez administration to educate those who never had such an opportunity. Her sense of pride both in herself and the Bolivarian movement was palpable. After our 2-minute conversation she left to continue marching.

Over the past 14 years conservative commentators have failed to appreciate the gravity of scenes like this and the enfranchisement of the formerly maligned. With Chávez often viewed crudely as an old-style Latin American caudillo leading a blind mass of people, his supporters are largely understood as misguided. What such perspectives fail to take into account, however, is not only the testimony of the woman I met, but also the popularity of Venezuelan democracy – which currently has the highest approval rating of any democracy in Latin America. What this suggests is that these people have not been duped. For the first time in 20 years they have a President who not only looks, talks and feels like them, but dedicated his presidency to improving their lot. While questions over the means – in terms of the direction and administration of particular policies – should be discussed and refined accordingly, the ends cannot be dismissed, nor derided.

3. Two Venezuelas

Later that night in May, the owner of the apartment I was renting came around. She wasn’t exactly dismissive of the marchers but referred to them frequently as the rojitos – the little red ones. Then after quizzing me about social safety nets in Australia, she described how a lot of the missions are corrupt. It was the usual anti-welfare admonitions you hear anywhere. She noted how people abuse the system, be they single mothers who have children for the sake of state support, or those that sign up for the aforementioned education missions only to take the money and never show up to classes.

While I found it interesting that corruption is now seen as a problem caused by the lower classes, rather than the robbery by the political elite – a common occurrence before Chávez – what the conversation spoke to was the huge division in Venezuelan society. Indeed, a number of conversations I had frequently turned to the comment that there is, in practice, two Venezuelas.

Looking forward, this may or may not be an issue for Chávez’s successor. Clearly, victory in 14 out of 15 electoral contests during his presidency points to a strong recipe for success. Any change on the part of the Chavistas, in this light, would appear nonsensical. However, Nicolas Maduro – the likely PSUV Candidate – isn’t Chávez, and may not be able to count on the level of support that his boss did. Accordingly, a greater level of not necessarily compromise, but conciliation may be required for the Chavistas to remain electorally successful. It should be noted however, that the level of polarisation is by no means solely attributed to the left in Venezuela. However, as those in power, a step in a more conciliatory direction may prove politically savvy.

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