Category Archives: Venezuela

ANCLAS’s Tom Chodor on Post-Chavez Venezuela

The Future of Chavismo Will be Decided in the Barrios as Much as in Miraflores

With the passing of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, debate has erupted on the future of ‘Chavismo’ – the political project that Chávez himself referred to as the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ Much of this debate has focused, understandably, on the successor to Chávez, the Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, and his ability to hold together the ruling coalition without the charisma and considerable political skill that Chávez possessed. Maduro, of course, still needs to win the upcoming election, but for many that seems a foregone conclusion, given the recent triumph of Chávez and the ruling party, PSUV in national and regional elections, and the goodwill that Maduro is likely to garner as the ‘Chávez candidate.’ This analysis is probably a fair scenario, though, of course, one can never have complete certainty in democratic elections.

Nevertheless, with Maduro assumed be the next resident in the presidential palace at Miraflores, questions are being posed about his ability to preserve Chavismo, given the cleavages in his own party, economic issues like inflation and dwindling private sector investment and the continuing polarisation of the country. Undoubtedly these are important issues that will play a large role in determining the future of Chavismo. However, one important aspect missing from the analysis, is the role of ordinary Venezuelans themselves – the people in the shanty towns (barrios) who constantly voted Chávez into power, and whose loyalty he repaid not only through the delivery of social services like health, education, housing and subsidised food, but also by facilitating and supporting a number of grassroots institutions through which their self-government could be fostered. These institutions – the communal councils, cooperatives or local communes – mushroomed in Venezuela under Chávez, and form part of the ‘participatory democracy’ model at the core of Chavismo.

Not much attention is usually paid to these institutions, primarily because they fall outside of the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy, leading many critics to decry them as clientelist mechanisms of distributing patronage. While there are undoubtedly problems with some of them – including corruption, waste and political subservience – (problems, incidentally, which the government did acknowledge and try to alleviate), it is also true that a lot of them have worked very well and have led to a flourishing of self-government and democracy at the grassroots level. Contrary to conventional analyses, the citizens organised through these institutions, were not always subservient to Chávez, as evidenced by the failure of the 2007 referendum on constitutional change. If anything, Chávez was reliant on this diverse and amorphous base, as it served as the force that pushed his government further towards reform and experimentation. The political awakening of this previously excluded section of the population could yet be the most significant legacy of Chávez’s time in power.

Now, however, with Chávez gone, the question is whether this experience has left a lasting impression, or whether the critics were right, and that these institutions were no more than structures of patronage. Thus, what happens in the barrios – within the communal councils, cooperatives and communes – is as vital to the future of Chavismo as what happens in Miraflores under Maduro. Will the social movements located there continue to be engaged in the political process? Will they continue to put effective pressure on the government to continue experimenting with social, political and economic structures? Will they continue to demand the further democratisation of the state bureaucracy and party structures in PSUV? Will they be listened to if they do?

These are all important questions to which we may get some partial answers in the coming months and years. There’s no doubt that there are countless obstacles in the way. But for years, Chávez’s supporters and detractors have argued over whether Chavismo is too reliant on one man, or whether it has unleashed something bigger than just the President. The latter view was expressed eloquently by one Chávez’s supporters during his funeral procession on Wednesday, when he declared to The Guardian that ‘the comandante is not dead, no, not dead. He has sowed something in us, the people, and that way he will live.’ In the near future we may get an indication just to what extent these words hold true.

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Lula speaking on Chavez

While it is in Portuguese, Lula’s words on Chávez are quite significant and revealing, particularly with respect to how the two of them managed bilateral relations and sought to address regional poverty concerns.


You can find a shorter English-language print version in the New York Times.

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Post-Chavez elections in Venezuela — OpEd in The Australian by ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges

ANCLAS senior associate Sean Burges has an OpEd in today’s The Australian discussing the role Brazil might play in ensuring that the presidential elections required in Venezuela after Hugo Chávez’s death satisfy democratic requisites. The full pre-publication text is below and the published version of the text is linked here.

Pre-publication text:

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has just died after a prolonged battle with cancer. While his death certainly raises questions about the longevity and sustainability of his Bolivarian revolution, it also stands as a significant test of the democracy promoting credentials of Brazil and the two important regional clubs it runs: the South American political grouping UNASUR and the trade bloc Mercosur.

Venezuela’s presidential succession procedures are clear. Article 232 of the constitution mandates a new election within thirty days if the president dies during the first four years of their term. The question many are now asking now is if this vote will happen – vice president Nicolas Maduro says ‘yes’ – and how democratic it will be, which is open to debate based on past precedent.

Historically, a free vote on schedule would satisfy Brazil’s pro-democracy requisites. But, events in 2012 suggest Brazil may now be valuing the spirit as much as the process of democracy. Venezuela’s upcoming vote stands as a test of this new pro-democracy policy in Brasília.

On 22 June 2012 Paraguay’s Liberal and Colorado parties joined forces to impeach leftist president Fernando Lugo in a process that many in the region now call a ‘coup-peachment.’ Strictly speaking, the process was legal, but politicized to the point of farce. Charges were laid, a congressional trial held, and a conviction delivered in less than a day.

What astonished many was the degree of political pressure Dilma exerted in Mercosur and Unasur to punish the political factions that had deposed her leftist ally, suspending Paraguay from both groupings. Suggestions that she was simply playing ideological favourites were strengthened when Brazil refused to take a similarly strong stance against Venezuela when Chávez failed to take his oath of office in January.

Such criticism may have been a bit unfair and missed the nuance in Brazil’s approach. Brazilian presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia offered the opinion, which became his country’s policy, that he agreed with the Venezuela Supreme Court judgment that as a re-elected president Article 234 of the constitution allowed Chávez up to six months leave of absence before a new election would be necessary. In an act of quiet bureaucratic resistance Brazilian diplomats pointedly noted that Article 232 still applied and that prompt elections would be required if Chávez died within the next four years.

With new elections now required in Venezuela we have an opportunity to see if there has been a real change in Brazil’s regional foreign policy to advancing substantive democracy or if the Lula-era tradition of selectively advocating a brand of pro-leftist democracy remains in place.

Make no mistake, the upcoming election in Venezuela is going to be difficult and divisive. The obvious strategy for Maduro will be to wrap himself in the mantle of Chávez’s memory while Capriles will likely resume his message of bringing Chávez’s social welfare policies to a sustainable path. All of this is an expected part of electoral politics. Where matters get tricky is the extent to which Maduro deploys executive presidential powers to artificially boost his campaign. One standout tactic from the October 2012 election was Chávez’s proclivity for mandating lengthy broadcasts of ‘government service’ programming to preempt television coverage of Capriles campaign events.

Another question is whether or not the military and security forces will take on the role of passive spectator expected in a consolidated democracy or if they will directly or covertly interfere with the campaign. Indeed, the temptation for political intervention by some sectors in the military will be immense if reports about their links to narcotrafficking and organized crime are correct.

Brazil has the back-room influence to prevent these sorts of violations of the democratic spirit of an election. Dilma as well as key advisors such as Garcia have enormous influence with the Chávez faithful. Moreover, Dilma’s 2010 presidential campaign advisors are likely to again play an important role in the pro-Chávez electoral push, fulfilling much the same role as Clinton campaign hothouse Carville and Associates did around the world in the 2000s. A behind the scenes steadying hand on Maduro-camp temptations to unduly exploit their position of power will be essential to the country’s future political stability. Venezuelans will know if the election is gamed, which would erode the credibility of a possible Maduro victory and further polarize the country. But if he were to win in a truly clean race it could create the conditions needed for a national political reconciliation. The same holds true for a possible opposition win. Even if uncomfortable for diplomats, helping to make this happen is exactly the sort of responsibility that goes with the regional leadership role Brazil has been claiming in South America. Post-Chávez Venezuela may prove to be Brazil’s first real test.

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ANCLAS Senior Associate Carlos Pio on the situation in Venezuela

ANCLAS Senior Associate Professor Carlos Pio had a piece on the situation in Venezuela published over the weekend in the main Brasília newspaper Correio Braziliense. The article is in Portuguese, but Pio’s main point is that Chávez is to blame for the uncertainties Venezuela faces today. Chávez has never tried to create a fully democratic regime, one structured upon solid institutions that can engage both the majority of his supporters and the vocal minority that rejects him in games of electoral competition and policy compromise. Instead, he chose to change the country’s name–to resemble that of his political movement’s; to persecute journalists, trade unionists and NGOs; to curb rights to private property and free information; as well as to arm groups of supporters. As a result, inflation reached 30 percent a year, investment, productivity and access to hard currency fell sharply, crime soared and the economy became even more dependent on oil exports.

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ANCLAS Senior Associate in the Australian on Chavez succession

ANCLAS Senior Associate Dr Sean Burges has an Op-Ed in today’s The Australian newspaper discussing the delay of Hugo Chávez’s inauguration for another term as president and what it might mean for future elections in the country. The website has re-published the full text of the OpEd if you are unable to access  The Australian’s paywall.


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OpEd on Venezuela by ANCLAS Senior Associate

ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges has an OpEd in The Australian today on what the return of Chavez’s illness might mean for Venezuela.

For those wanting to follow the Maduro/Chavez saga, Americas Quarterly has a good piece on Maduro by Javier Corrales. Quick summary — Corales is definitely a fellow Chavista traveller, but he has a ways to go before he can must the almost automatic widespread support Hugo Chavez enjoys.

If you don’t have a subscription, an earlier version of the text is below.

Venezuela’s looming crisis

Sean W Burges

Senior Associate

Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies

at the Australian National University


Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign that ended with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s re-election on October 7th, the mercurial Chávez exhibited his trademark ebullience and rhetorical extravagance. Even though he cut back on his public appearances, for the faithful it was easy to believe that his cancer had been completely cured. Now it is starting to look like the naysayers were right and that the cancer Chávez has been fighting since 2011 is terminal. A December 9th special session of Congress was convened to authorize Chávez’s travel to Cuba for emergency surgery this week, which will be his fourth major cancer intervention.


The problem for Venezuelans is that Chávez’s potential health decline and death could throw their country into a very messy political crisis and bitter internecine power struggle within the president’s Bolivarian movement. Worse, this could lead to mass violence in the streets as contending factions battle for power.


Article 232 of the Venezuelan constitution addresses two scenarios directly relevant to Chávez’s illness. First, should an elected president become unable to take the oath of office to start their term, the constitution calls for a new presidential election. Second, new presidential elections must be held if a president dies, resigns or is fired from the presidency within the first four years of their term.


Chávez appears to be planning for the enactment of Article 232. He made a pre-surgery whistle stop return to Caracas last weekend to unambiguously name Nicolas Maduro as his vice president and heir, calling on Venezuelans to support his candidacy should a new presidential election be required. In effect Chávez is trying to exercise a practice that Mexicans under the 71-year authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party knew as the “dedazo”, or the touch of the president’s finger to anoint the chosen successor. The question in Venezuela is whether Chávez’s finger will be strong enough to reach out from his grave.


The extent to which Chávez dominates Venezuela makes little sense in a political context such as Australia’s. Everything in Venezuela is about the president. Whether loved or hated, he is talked about all the time and in relation to almost any subject. Within government and public policy circles no decision is made without the almost direct approval of Chávez. In the public and private sphere his influence is all-pervasive and unrelenting. Its dominating nature is particularly notable during elections. Although the actual act of voting is laudably free and fair in Venezuela, the extent to which Chávez’s popularly created cult of personality imbues everything means that conditions for the electoral campaign are massively tilted against his opponents.


It is also the strength of Chávez’s personality that keeps internecine bickering within the Bolivarian movement under wraps. Although Chávez is explicitly naming Maduro, a former bus driver and grass roots general for the Bolivarian movement, as his successor and protector of the revolution, there is no wider consensus or actual agreement that the vice president should assume the reins of power. In particular, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello harbors his own presidential ambitions. Cabello also brings his own revolutionary credibility, which stretches back to active participation in Chávez’s 1992 failed coup attempt and successive ministerial posts over the last decade.


For Chávez the worst case scenario is that his two lieutenants will engage in a bitter struggle for power that will split the leftist vote and leave the way open for victory by Henrique Capriles, who garnered 46% of the vote in last October’s presidential ballot. With the dominating force of Chávez’s personality interred this is also a very likely scenario.


The implications for Venezuelans are deeply worrying. A complex system of corruption and patronage has arisen in the shadows of Chávez’s hyper-centralized rule, some of it with very deep links into the military and parts drifting into the shady world of narcotrafficking. A new presidential election thus becomes about more than who holds the country’s highest office. It suddenly becomes about who control of the real levers of economic power in the country by preventing close scrutiny of activities in the shadows. This makes the election a winner takes all game that no side can afford to lose.


Sadly this explosive cocktail of conflicting vested interests may prove to be Chávez’s lasting legacy, not the many laudable social programs he launched and the efforts he devoted to making Venezuela’s poor majority realize they have rights and can have a voice in the political system. Chávez’s death, when it comes, will put a severe strain on the Venezuelan political system and force complex and painful negotiations to reformulate how the country operates. There is a very real, but still avoidable possibility that these negotiations will take the form of violent street protests and gangland-style score settling, making Venezuela an even more violent place. The saving grace here is that an authoritarian retrogression is not a real possibility due to severe regional pressure to keep the Americas democratic, which is ironically due to concerns with the type of democracy that Chávez sought to build in Venezuela.





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A skeptical view of Venezuela’s election this weekend

Michael Harvey, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Canadian newspaper The National Post in which he takes a skeptical view of propositions that Chávez will lose or accept a loss in this weekends Venezuelan presidential election. Harvey is worth listening to. Not only does he speak fluent Bolivarian, but he also has spent most of the last fifteen years working very in the region, including extended postings in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. Substitute Australia (or any other country, really) for Canada in his piece and you have a pretty good set of recommendations for Canberra if events get unduly exciting next week.


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Analysis of Venezuela from Steve Ellner in Caracas

Good, clear analysis of Venezuela is hard to come by. Steve Ellner, a long-time resident in Caracas and leading scholar on the country, has a recent piece out that gives quite a bit of insight into what is likely to happen within Venezuela and why. Take a look at the article here on Znet.

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Hard Questions for Chávez Over Refinery Fire

Brazilian centre-right daily O Estado de São Paulo has used its editorial page to unleash a fusillade against the capacity of Venezuela to maintain its oil infrastructure. The editorial board draws particular attention to government claims that the Amuay refinery was maintained properly and internal PDVSA documents that suggest that repairs were delayed due to a shortage of materials.

While the Estadão has not exactly been a friend to Chávez, the tone of the editorial does resurrect long-standing and legitimate worries that oil production capacity in Venezuela has actually declined under Bolivarian management. As far back as 2006, the influential business intelligence and consulting firm Oxford Analytica has been raising concerns about what exactly is going on with PDVSA (and raised similar issues earlier this year). Similar issues were raised three years later by the Council on Foreign Relations, which pointed to indications that production capacity had fallen.

For Venezuelans the tragedy at the Amuay refinery may well extend beyond the horrific loss of life this week. Irrespective of what you think about Chávez’s politics, the reality is that he has done quite a bit to help human development in Venezuela and raise the self confidence of the poor to the point where they can and do think about making new realities for themselves. State help has been essential for this and will remain critical for continued human development progress. If oil production is falling and, as Estadão charges, the necessary production infrastructure is collapsing, then Venezuela is in real danger of losing a massive income stream that can be used to help drive sustainable national development. It will be interesting to see if this issue comes up and is seriously addressed during the current presidential campaign.

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Paraguay rejects Venezuela’s membership in Mercosur

The Paraguayan senate must be feeling a bit like the caged lions and tigers currently stuck in customs limbo on the border with Argentina. It was holding the power of entry or exclusion over Venezuela’s membership application to Mercosur, but lost it after a remarkably opportunistic impeachment of president Fernando Lugo earlier this year. Now, like a big cat trapped in a cage, it is roaring through the bars of its political confinement, finally voting on and rejecting Venezuela’s application to join Mercosur.

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