Will Venezuela’s ‘Chavismo’ survive Chavez?

The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2013.

Venezuela faces multiple potential crises arising from the illness of President Hugo Chavez. The future of the so-called Boliviarian revolution hangs in the balance.

As a presidential democracy with fixed terms, the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 sets the inauguration for Jan. 10. If Mr. Chavez dies, his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, temporarily assumes office; but after Jan. 10, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, must assume leadership and convene new elections within 30 days.

As long as Mr. Chavez has a chance of recovery, his inauguration can be prorogued for 90 days. Moreover, according to the constitution, if the president cannot be sworn into office by the National Assembly, he can be sworn in by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. There has been some speculation that supreme court justices could travel to Cuba so Mr. Chavez could take his oath from his hospital bed. Needless to say, such scenarios inflame the passionate objections of the opposition. “Is Cuba part of Venezuela?” they ask.

Assuming new elections are held, the Boliviarian movement that Mr. Chavez has built over the past decade – a kind of civil-military, multiclass, nationalist-populist coalition, largely led from above, but heavily reliant on extensive popular mobilization, and unified by broadly statist and socialist orientations toward redistribution – would be put to the test. It is possible that mourning the loss of Mr. Chavez could benefit the eventual candidate to replace him (which could presumably be either Mr. Maduro or Mr. Cabello), just as the death of Nestor Kirchner made his widow, Cristina Fernandez, an irresistible candidate in Argentina’s 2007 elections.

The opposition to Mr. Chavez remains fractious and undisciplined. But there are also distinct factions within the regime, and they could split apart if personal ambitions trump common purpose. It is not for nothing that Messrs. Maduro and Cabello pledged to work together in their recent meeting with Mr. Chavez in Havana.

Moreover, elections could easily become a source of conflict and instability if either side decides not to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Under Mr. Chavez, Venezuela has experienced a drastic erosion of the separation of powers, accompanied by an inevitable concentration of power in the executive branch. The temptation to play fast and loose with the constitution will be high. Whether it is possible for the contest for power to be resolved decisively through elections under these conditions is a matter for speculation.

The deepest crisis that chavismo faces, however, is not governmental or even constitutional. Although the changes introduced by Mr. Chavez over 13 years in office have been deep and in many respects irreversible, the extreme personalism of his rule raises the prospect that the entire Boliviarian revolution could unravel without the force of his personality to keep followers in awe and opponents at bay.

Mr. Chavez has built a formidable apparatus of clientelism and patronage politics, involving huge social investments made by “missions” (social projects to improve literacy and health, for example) and “community councils” (self-governing local associations). These projects are designed to bypass a sclerotic bureaucracy, fragile representative institutions – especially political parties – and sub-national governments controlled by opponents. To sustain this system – and prevent it from degenerating into unrestrained corruption or factionalism – requires discipline and unity of purpose at the top and continuing enthusiasm and mobilization from below.

Whether the Boliviarian revolution and its constitutional and political underpinnings can survive will depend on the human qualities of politicians who, until now, have played secondary parts in the unfolding drama, and to whom falls the task of routinizing Mr. Chavez’s charisma. It will also depend on whether the revolution can retain its élan among the masses in the absence of their providential leader. The latter, above all, will decide the denouement of the multiple crises of chavismo.

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