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In Aftermath of Venezuela’s Protests, Whither Chavismo?

The long-term survival of chavismo in Venezuela depends on its ability to evolve.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales lead the funeral procession for the late President Hugo Chávez. Photo and homepage photo: Juan Víctor Fajardo.

The wave of social unrest that hit several cities in Venezuela in February and March is nothing new for a country that has been deeply polarized politically since Hugo Chávez assumed the presidency in 1998. What is different this time is that Chávez—who died of cancer in March 2013—is no longer around, and the protests have raised the question of how long his legacy will endure.  

Chavismo, the leftwing ideological and almost cultish movement that built around Chávez, remains a potent force in Venezuelan politics. But with the country battling consumer product shortages, shocking crime rates, and official corruption, chavismo’s claims to champion the working classes appears to have worn thin.

To understand why chavismo continues to hold such sway in Venezuela requires looking back at the early days of the Chávez presidency. Chávez replaced a kleptocratic regime with a pledge to serve the working class, and quickly set about making tangible changes that affected the lives of everyday people. In urban areas, this included new transportation systems, community centers and improved healthcare. In rural areas, it meant food aid and other handouts. The new government services accompanied a narrative that made people who were once abandoned by their government feel as though they were part of something larger. Many of those social programs have stagnated in more recent years, but government claims that they would be under threat if the opposition takes power continue to act as a powerful force against change at the ballot box.

Yet cracks in the chavismo facade have begun to emerge. The long-term effect of Chávez’s economic policies—including price controls, resource nationalization and exchange rate manipulation—has hampered private enterprise to the point of triggering the current product shortages. Similarly, Chávez’s political management deepened the politicization of the justice system, hollowing out law enforcement institutions so much that the country no longer has the ability to combat rampant criminality.

While the recent unrest has involved much of the habitual upper- and middle-class opposition to chavismo, more dangerous for the government has been the (still limited) involvement of previously hard-core chavistas, fed up with the shortages and high crime. The long-term survival of chavismo in its current form depends on its ability to ensure that this trickle does not become a flood.

The chosen, but hopeless, one

Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has struggled to fill the vacuum left by the death of his mentor. Chávez was a towering force in Venezuelan politics; his political skill and force of personality make him a tough act for any Venezuelan politician to follow.

Maduro seems to lack the charisma and political dexterity to overcome this challenge. His greatest political asset is his personal story: a one-time bus driver and union leader who, shortly after turning to politics, became part of Chávez’s inner circle. One year into his presidency, Maduro’s blue-collar background and Chávez’s endorsement give him the best claim to the chavismo mantle. But his inability to form coherent economic and security policies and the overreaction of the security forces to the protests, undermine his presidential credentials, set the stage for more unrest, and leave him vulnerable to challenges within his own party.

The odds of Maduro serving out his full term, which expires in 2019, are not good. But despite the opposition protests and calls for him to step down, a change in leadership still seems more likely to be determined by his own party.

The internal rivals to Maduro are well known. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has been publicly loyal to Maduro, but his presidential ambitions are no secret—and crucially, he is regarded to have closer relations to the military than the president. Chávez’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, also receives nods when discussing potential successors to Maduro. They are probably content to see Maduro flounder before emerging from the shadows to ‘save’ the country, but a change at the head of government most likely remains a question of years, rather than weeks.

Whispers of a military intervention also abound, but the high command is loyal to the government, if not to Maduro. Their role would be to abet any internal move against the president, rather than to promote the government’s overthrow. The period of upheaval may weaken chavismo in the short term, but absent viable political opposition, a change of leadership that restores stability could just as well revitalize the movement.

An opposition divided

If the unrest has highlighted government divisions, so has it placed the spotlight on splits within the opposition. Protests in Caracas, in particular, have been as much a play for predominance within the opposition between Leopoldo López—now in prison facing charges of inciting violence, among other charges—and Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition’s losing candidate in the last two presidential elections.

Yet outside of the capital, in cities such as San Cristóbal, Mérida and Valencia, where much of the unrest has been student-led, López and Capriles hardly feature on the lips of protestors. There remain no clear objectives or leadership for the protest movement, a factor that has contributed to the steady decline in protest action since early April. Crucially, the opposition is still a minority; its strength lies across the majority of the country’s urban centers. But pictures of barricades and violence in the streets are easy fodder for the government media machine to propagate to its supporters elsewhere.

Removing Maduro via protests was always the longest of long shots, but the unrest has challenged the traditional chavismo vitriol. Student and working-class protestors in particular do not resemble the “parasitic bourgeoisie” or fascist oligarchs that chavistas have historically railed against. Indeed, if chavismo is to endure as a populist movement, it may need to find a narrative—and policy regime—that is a bit more inclusive.

Yet the rhetoric coming from Venezuela’s leaders at the moment appears to do the opposite, vilifying the opposition, even as a “peace” dialogue between the government and the main political opposition has begun under international guidance.   

Need for evolution

Despite Chávez’s death and Maduro’s struggles, chavismo remains the most potent political force in Venezuela. The divisions in the opposition and the memory of the appallingly poor governance that preceded chavismo hamper the viability of any alternatives in the near term. Yet if the social problems that triggered the current protests do not improve, chavismo’s claim as champion of the poor will ring ever more hollow, leaving it vulnerable in the next election five years from now. 

Perhaps there is a lesson in the political legacy of Juan Perón in Argentina. Successive leaders of the peronismo movement have demonstrated the ability to navigate back and forth from Left- to Right-leaning policies as circumstances dictated, all while using the personality of the movement’s founder as a political bowsprit.

To date, chavismo has failed to show such flexibility. Should the movement develop the ability to evolve, it stands a chance of remaining the dominant political force in Venezuela for years to come. If it does not, Chávez’s political heirs will continue to get by on the lingering popularity of their movement and benefactor and the sharpness of their elbows—for now. But absent results, the rhetoric will wear thin and the country may move on. 


Tags: chavismo, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela
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