Deciphering Hugo Chávez?
"Over the last fourteen years, Chávez has submitted himself and his agenda to fourteen national votes, winning thirteen of them by large margins, in polling deemed by Jimmy Carter to be “best in the world” out of the 92 elections that he has monitored. (It turns out it isn’t that difficult to have transparent elections: voters in Venezuela cast their ballot on an touch pad, which spits out a receipt they can check and then deposit in a box. At the end of the day, random polling stations are picked for ‘hot audits,’ to make sure the electronic and paper tallies add up). A case is made that this ballot-box proceduralism isn’t democratic, that Chávez dispenses patronage and dominates the media giving him an unfair advantage. But after the last presidential ballot—which Chávez won with the same percentage he did his first election yet with a greatly expanded electorate—even his opponents have admitted, despairingly, that a majority of Venezuelans liked, if not adored, the man. [. . .]"Hugo Chávez Frias . . . was probably more demonized than any democratically elected president in world history. But he was repeatedly re-elected by wide margins, and will be mourned not only by Venezuelans but by many Latin Americans who appreciate what he did for the region" (CEPR).
Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Chavismo’s social-welfare programs will endure now that Chávez is gone and shelve the leftwing hope that out of rank-and-file activism a new, sustainable way of organizing society will emerge. The participatory democracy that took place in barrios, in workplaces and in the countryside over the last fourteen years was a value in itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a better world.
There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars . . . on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere." (The Nation).
"Without doubt, chavismo will outlive its founder. Many ordinary Venezuelans will look back on his rule with fondness. But his heirs will have to grapple with some intractable problems."This is an important difference between the classical and radical populist eras. Juan Perón and his cohorts co-opted a rising Left. Chávez has seemingly resurrected one and has at times struggled to keep up with the forces he helped unleash. The Bolivarian Circles represent with exquisite precision the ethos of the Revolution: These community councils were organized in an attempt to bury the state deep into civil society, to bypass potentially hostile local elected officials and to dole out patronage directly from the center. But they are, as Nikolas Kosloff puts it, at once “anti-democratic, creating a kind of vertical dependency around the cult figure of Chávez” and simultaneously creating a real terrain of democratic deliberation" (In These Times).
Venezuela comes towards the bottom of just about every league table for good governance or economic competitiveness. For 14 years Venezuelans have been told that their problems were caused by somebody else—the United States or “the oligarchy”. Getting ahead has depended on political loyalty rather than merit. The mass enrolment of millions in “universities” that mainly impart propaganda have raised expectations that are almost bound to be dashed. [. . .]
A majority of Venezuelans may eventually come to see that Mr Chávez squandered an extraordinary opportunity for his country, to use an unprecedented oil boom to equip it with world-class infrastructure and to provide the best education and health services money can buy. But this lesson will come the hard way, and there is no guarantee that it will be learned" (The Economist).
"He wrote, he read, and mostly he spoke. Hugo Chávez, whose death has been announced, was devoted to the word. He spoke publicly an average of 40 hours per week. As president, he didn't hold regular cabinet meetings; he'd bring the many to a weekly meeting, broadcast live on radio and television. Aló, Presidente, the programme in which policies were outlined and discussed, had no time limits, no script and no teleprompter."What is left, instead, after Chávez? A gaping hole for the millions of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans, mostly poor, who viewed him as a hero and a patron, someone who “cared” for them in a way that no political leader in Latin America in recent memory ever had. For them, now, there will be a despair and an anxiety that there really will be no one else like him to come along, not with as big a heart and as radical a spirit, for the foreseeable future. And they are probably right. But it’s also Chávism that has not yet delivered. Chávez’s anointed successor, Maduro, will undoubtedly try to carry on the revolution, but the country’s untended economic and social ills are mounting, and it seems likely that, in the not so distant future, any Venezuelan despair about their leader’s loss will extend to the unfinished revolution he left behind" (The New Yorker).
The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe. In that period Chávez won 56% of the vote in 1998, 60% in 2000, survived a coup d'état in 2002, got over 7m votes in 2006 and secured 54.4% of the vote last October. He was a rare thing, almost incomprehensible to those in the US and Europe who continue to see the world through the Manichean prism of the cold war: an avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat. To those who think the expression of the masses should have limited or no place in the serious business of politics all the talking and goings on in Chávez's meetings were anathema, proof that he was both fake and a populist. But to the people who tuned in and participated en masse, it was politics and true democracy not only for the sophisticated, the propertied or the lettered" (The Guardian).
Update: Here are a couple of other provocative commentaries on Chávez. The first - "The Achievements of Hugo Chávez" - is from Counterpunch and documents the medical/health dimensions of contemporary Venezuela; the second, by a smart young political theorist Diego von Vacano, who is concerned with how we ought to conceptualize Chávez's politics.