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Revolution on shaky ground

Without oil and Chavez, Chavismo is wearing thin.

Fairer elections, greater freedom of expression, less heavy-handed government intervention, may not be enough. Fairer elections, greater freedom of expression, less heavy-handed government intervention, may not be enough.

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 on a softer hand and a more indirect touch.

Maduro lacks all of Chávez’s advantages. The Venezuelan economy’s dependence on oil has become increasingly perilous as oil production and revenues have fallen precipitously. He enjoys little of the public support that Chávez did and lacks his magnetic charm. In its absence, Maduro has shown a harder face in dealing with his problems and critics. For instance, his efforts to control inflation have been intrusive, authoritarian and deeply ineffective.

Charges against opposition leaders, notably López, are thinly veiled acts of intimidation, while suppression of the media — always an issue under Chávez — has intensified. Maduro has tried to end the protests through a “peace conference” and most recently by appealing to the leaders of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). But the peace conference was boycotted by the opposition and it is hard to see what the UNASUR could possibly do.

Unfortunately, the solutions for healing this deeply divided society are not clear. Whatever one thinks of Chávez, he built his Bolivarian revolution on an astute diagnosis of the ills of a society that was nominally democratic and capitalist, but was not terribly inclusive. Chávez’s critics argue that he broke the country’s democratic institutions and wrecked the productive economy, and there are strong grounds to support these claims.

But in truth, Venezuela does not have a strong model of economic and political success to refer to. Simply ensuring fairer elections, greater freedom of expression and opposition, and less heavy-handed government intervention in the economy, is unlikely to be sufficient to fix a broken polity and economy.

It is hard to know how the volatile and periodically violent protests in Venezuela will be resolved, but few see them as regime threatening. Maduro and the Bolivarian revolution he inherited continue to resonate in poorer communities, the party wields a virtual stranglehold on political power at all levels of government, and the military is solidly on board.

Chavismo’s capacity to deliver without oil and without Chávez is dramatically on the decline. But even if the protestors get their way and Maduro is forced to resign, it simply isn’t clear what should take its place.

The writer is professor and co-director, International Development Institute, King’s College, London

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