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Damarys Canache, expert on Venezuelan politics
Venezuela’s inauguration day came and went on Thursday (Jan. 10), but with no sign of Hugo Chávez, the country’s populist president, known for his socialist programs and anti-American rhetoric. Although re-elected in October to his third six-year term, Chávez was reported to be critically ill in a Cuban hospital, almost a month after cancer surgery there in December. Political scientist Damarys Canache is a native of Venezuela who studies the country’s politics and conducts public opinion research there. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about the nation’s past under Chávez and where it might be headed.
American news coverage in the past has focused on Chávez’s autocratic tendencies, yet he has been re-elected twice in popular votes. How would you explain this?
For the last 14 years, Venezuelan politics have been dominated by Hugo Chávez and his Chavismo movement. He was first elected in 1998 when the country was in the midst of a severe socio-economic and political crisis. At that time, the conditions for a political rupture were ripe, helping to explain why a political outsider like Chávez was able to win the majority of the popular vote. Once in power, Chávez relied extensively on his charisma and populist leadership style, and on the use of institutions and resources of the Venezuelan government to build and maintain a large base of electoral support. This has brought him and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), a number of electoral victories.
The regime that Chávez orchestrated defies neat conceptualization as democratic or authoritarian. What we have seen over the last years in Venezuela is how a democratically elected president has slowly but effectively worked to weaken the principles and institutions of liberal democracy. During Chávez’s rule, we have witnessed a growing concentration of powers in the hands of the president, the dwindling of institutional checks, the diminishing protection of civil and political rights, and the use of public-sector resources to benefit supporters and punish opponents.
Although Chávez has won three presidential elections, many scholars contend that Venezuela today is best characterized as a competitive authoritarian regime. In such a regime, incumbents amass so much power for their own political gain that challenging those incumbents in elections typically is a futile, even quixotic, endeavor.
If Chávez dies or is unable to return to his duties, what should we expect in the transition?
This is a critical question, and the answer is necessarily uncertain. In the short-, and perhaps medium-term, I suspect that a likely scenario is that Venezuela will enter a period of “Chavismo without Chávez.” If the president cannot return to office, the constitution requires that a new election be held. Given the full control that Chávez’s party has over government institutions and the base of popular support that the party will inherit from Chávez, it seems likely that his political successor would win such an election. What is far less certain is how long “Chavismo without Chávez” could thrive.
Most observers of Venezuelan politics agree that there are two major factions within Chávez’s party. One is civilian, highly ideological, and closely aligned with Cuba. This faction’s leader is Nicolas Maduro, who was endorsed by Chávez as his heir. The second faction represents military and business interests. If Chávez does not return to office, a key question will be whether these two factions will continue to co-exist or splinter into openly competitive movements. While that dynamic plays out, a second key question concerns the extent to which Venezuela’s current political opposition would be energized by the prospects of competing in a political arena no longer dominated by Hugo Chávez.
The Venezuelan government is very dependent on revenue from its oil exports, and about 40 percent of those exports go to the U.S. – yet Chávez, especially during the Bush administration, has often spoken out forcefully against the U.S. and its policies. Why?
Chávez’s vociferous and radical rhetoric against the United States is an element of a populist political strategy that he uses to strengthen his leadership both domestically and regionally. This strategy has never affected U.S.-Venezuelan economic relations. Venezuela has always been a significant supplier of oil to the U.S. If the United States is reliant on Venezuelan oil, Venezuela is even more dependent on the U.S. market. Although the United States is nominally one of Chávez’s worst enemies, it is also Venezuela’s best client. There is a relationship of economic interdependence that has not been dramatically altered during Chávez’s tenure.
What might the end of Chávez in office mean for Latin America?
There is no question that Chávez has been influential throughout Latin America. Using resources from record high oil prices, Chávez has followed a foreign policy course that includes initiatives that have moved Venezuela and other countries in the region away from their historic relationship with the United States. The future prospects of this foreign policy orientation will depend on the health of the Venezuelan economy and the willingness of Chávez’s successor to continue Venezuela’s regional activism.
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