At the beginning of his mandate, many of us focused on his provocative rhetoric and on the unviability of socialism in the 21st century. We failed to grasp the significance of one major point: Chávez was the first leftwing ruler with revolutionary ambitions who also happened to have an enormous amount of cash at his disposal.
Other populist experiments did not enjoy such a prolonged period of bonanza, and communist countries were never wealthy: they gave away weapons, tractors and scholarships; they trained soldiers or proposed barters. There had never been a leftist government that conducted politics with an abundance of US dollars, the way Chávez did. Venezuela’s oil revenues made their way to the neighborhoods of Caracas but also to Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and even The Bronx in New York. Regardless of any personal feelings of sympathy or disaffection, it is essential to analyze the political impact that Chávez’s money and ideas have had on Venezuela and Latin America.
Chávez was the leader of a group of presidents who called themselves “Bolivarian,” (after the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar) and who caught the world’s attention because of their anti-democratic actions, ideological hubris and political cynicism. But this focus on people and events has made us lose sight of the political process itself. Many of the Bolivarians’ excesses are related to their extreme-left positions, which sought a way to recycle themselves following the fall of the Berlin Wall. They enacted structural revenge for past grievances and grew stronger with the crises that destroyed their political predecessors. They have often been judged for their excesses, rarely for their limitations, and hardly ever for their potential historical impact.
Bolivarian policies are unsustainable as they depend on high raw material prices
The Bolivarians governed in a continent dominated by leftwing governments that have enforced a tolerance for excess at the Organization of American States and nearly all other regional agencies. Half a century ago, the main destinations for leftwing activists in Latin America were exile, jail and the cemetery. The political and economic liberalization that began 30 years ago brought democracy and macroeconomic stability, but the vast masses of poor citizens suffering from social, economic and political exclusion remained exactly the same. Latin America thus became the world region with the greatest democratic progress yet also with the most inequality.
Even if there are reasons to doubt the democratic disposition of the “Bolivarians,” they are governments that might intimidate but which do not engage in murder or torture; they exercise a limited sort of repression and are supported by unquestionable electoral majorities. These governments are reenacting what conservative governments did for years: using the state to reinforce their own power groups, economically and politically. It does not really matter whether one calls it corruption, the turno system (two parties agreeing to take turns in power) or just local tradition. Essentially, it was institutional weaknesses that allowed it to happen.
The Bolivarians’ ongoing conflict with the media can be explained by the left’s reduced parcel of power and wiggle room in this field, by the very real existence of conservative media monopolies, and by a desire for revenge for past grievances.
Whereas they cannot be considered fully democratic, nor are they authoritarian regimes — they are far from anything like Pinochet’s Chile or Videla’s Argentina, and they are also very different from Cuba under Fidel Castro.
The strength of their electoral majorities and the weakness of their fragmented opponents keeps them in government. It is extremely difficult for them to become dictatorships: they will remain in power for as long as they can hold on to that electoral majority. They have addressed the issue of social inclusion, but generally speaking they are inefficient and in the long run this will affect their strength at the polls. A recovery of democratic institutionalism must emerge from the new balance of power currently under construction.
The poverty in many parts of Latin America makes people live like the victims of a permanent natural disaster. They are nothing like the Greek or Spanish workers who are losing their entitlements; these are people without hope of anything. In such cases, state assistance is indispensable. In this sense, Bolivarian social policies have come under fire, and been described as unsustainable because they depend on high prices of oil and other raw materials. And this is indeed the case. But Latin America had other periods when it was flush with cash, yet the money went to finance the wealthy classes’ squandering ways.
People must realize that voting allows them to be represented and obtain benefits
The difference is that now, the lower classes are not missing out on this bonanza, and this has very significant political implications.
Indeed, the long-term sustainability — or lack thereof — of social policies cannot depend on oil prices, but on whether it will be possible, one day in the future, to raise taxes. This is precisely what keeps Latin America as the region with the greatest inequality.
While average tax revenues in OECD countries are 35 percent of GDP, in Latin America it is 19 percent. The “fiscal revolution” that the continent needs will not emerge from a sudden outbreak of sensitivity from the upper classes, but from democratic competence and the assertion of citizens’ demands. In this sense, the most strategic impact of so-called populism is the way it is positively changing voter demographics. In the historical process of popular vote, first there are those who do not exist as voters, then those who do not vote because they are unaware of its importance, those whose vote is manipulated, and those who learn to sell their vote. The process concludes when there is a majority who realizes that voting allows them to be represented and obtain benefits.
This civilizing process was experienced by Europeans during the past century and it led to greater equality and development. In other words, whoever wants to rule has to seriously consider that the poor do matter, which is why inclusion and the creation of an integrating political identity is vital to democracy, even if for now this identity has traits of rebelliousness.
Chávez’s most specific legacy is the creation of nouveaux riches, very much despite the extreme left’s moral conflict with wealth. It is truly surrealist to observe how some extreme left-wing groups, “purebred communists” in some cases, were made rich by Chávez and became what people call boliburgueses, a cross between Bolivarian and bourgeois. This is not a bad thing — on the contrary, it is very positive for the left to have businesspeople and economic clout to improve the balance of power and gain a better understanding of the markets and of democracy.
In Nicaragua, the resources from Venezuela are paving the way for a productive boom. One of the many projects financed by Venezuelan money is a free amusement park that is filled daily by tens of thousands of children and young adults and their families. This might be considered one of those unsustainable projects in the long run, but considering the contagious criminality in violent neighboring countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, this park is a formidable tool for crime prevention that is protecting security and economic growth in Nicaragua.
Viewed in this light, Chávez has in fact indirectly subsidized the business class. If, in future, Venezuelan resources stop flowing in, then Nicaragua’s wealthy classes will have to decide whether they would rather pay more taxes or face the drug lords and the violent gang Salvatrucha.
Joaquín Villalobos was a Salvadoran guerrilla fighter and now works as a consultant in international conflict resolution.