By: Peter Kingstone
Without oil and Chavez, Chavismo is wearing thin.
The anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death was marked with pomp, parades — and protests. The demonstrations target what many in the middle class see as a failed and even illegitimate regime. Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has dismissed the legitimacy of the protestors, accusing them of being US-led coup plotters and blaming the economic issues affecting the country on an “economic war” waged by the “parasitic bourgeoisie”. Nevertheless, the boiling anger brings home a clear message: one year after Chávez’s death, his revolution is on shaky ground.
The protests began in January and grew in size and intensity, primarily in response to a series of highly visible violent crimes. What began as an explosion of student anger about crime and impunity, turned into a more generalised expression of middle class anger at a host of very real issues in Venezuela. These date back well before Chávez’s death, but have worsened noticeably under Maduro.
They include: Latin America’s highest homicide rate, one of the world’s highest inflation rates (officially 56 per cent but much higher in reality), severe shortages in basic goods such as butter, flour, corn. The government crackdown on the protestors, including the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, have only fuelled the fire, giving credence to protestors’ complaints that the regime suppresses opposing voices.
Chávez consolidated his political power on the back of the image of a revolutionary society, with a new form of participatory democracy and “endogenous” development. The new participatory democracy manifested itself in institutional innovations, notably communal councils and the many redistributive social policies that brought resources to poor, under-served constituencies. These covered a wide array of benefits, including housing, medicine, groceries and education, as well as various forms of simple cash grants. Chávez’s defenders point to the substantial reductions in poverty and inequality during his tenure.
Critics note, however, that the good results are at least partially based on unreliable, politicised data. More importantly, in a period of extraordinary social gains across Latin America, Venezuela did not perform particularly well, compared to regional leaders or even to previous periods in its own past, when extraordinary oil revenues drove incomes up and inequality down. Perhaps most importantly, Chávez’s policies did little to build human capital and heightened dependence on oil while actually damaging the sector.
In short, there is little reason to think that the Bolivarian revolution offered much more than a familiar Latin American pattern of unsustainable expenditures, fuelled by short-term commodity revenue booms. But, Chávez was able to overcome his significant policy shortcomings with more than record oil prices. He forged a highly personal relationship with the country’s large mass of poor voters through his enormous charisma. He also contained opposition through a number of measures, including an often subtle authoritarianism that relied continued…