DYER: Venezuela After Chavez
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” said Georges Clemenceau, prime minster of France during the First World War who promptly died to prove his point.
He was duly replaced and France was just fine without him.
Same goes for Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.
“Commandant Presidente” Chavez’s death on Tuesday, March 5, came as no surprise.
He was clearly coming home to die when he returned from his last bout of surgery in Cuba in December and, since then, everybody in politics in Venezuela has been pondering their post-Chavez strategies.
But, none of them really knows what will happen in the election that will be held by the end of April, let alone what happens afterwards.
Venezuela never stopped being a democracy despite 14 years of Chavez’s rule. He didn’t seize power. He didn’t even rig elections, though he used the government’s money and privileged access to the media to good effect.
He was elected president four times, the first three with increasing majorities — but, the last time, in 2012, he fell back sharply, defeating his rival by a margin of 54 per cent to 44 per cent.
That is certainly not a wide enough margin to guarantee his appointed successor, vice-president Nicolas Maduro, will win the next election. Maduro will doubtless benefit from a certain sympathy vote, but that effect may be outweighed by the fact Chavez is no longer there in person to work his electoral magic.
If his United Socialist Party of Venezuela was to lose the election, it would not be a tragedy.
Chavez was an unnecessarily combative and polarizing politician and a truly awful administrator, but he actually achieved what he went into politics for.
Twenty years ago, Venezuelan politics was a corrupt game fought between two factions of a narrow elite. Today, the task of using the country’s oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor majority is central to all political debate in the country.
In last year’s election, the Venezuelan opposition parties managed to unite behind a single presidential candidate — Enrique Capriles — whose political platform was essentially “Chavismo” without the demagoguery.
In previous elections, the opposition had railed against Chavez’s socialism and Marxism and lost by a wide margin. Capriles, by contrast, promised to retain most of Chavez’s social-welfare policies and lost by a narrower margin.
Over the past dozen years, Chavez’s governments have poured almost $300 billion into improving literacy, extending high-school education, creating a modern, universally accessible health-care system, build housing for the homeless and subsidizing household purchases from groceries to appliances.
What made that possible was not socialism, but Venezuela’s huge oil revenues.
Capriles had to promise to maintain these policies because the poor — and most Venezuelans are still poor — won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that.
He just said he would spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believed him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s slapdash administration.
Venezuela today has the fairest distribution of wealth in the Americas, with the obvious exception of Canada.
Venezuela’s “Gini coefficient”, which measures the wealth gap between the rich and the poor, is 0.39, whereas the United States is 0.45 and Brazil, even after 10 years of reforming left-wing governments, is still 0.52. (A lower score means less inequality of income.)
For all of Chavez’s ranting about class struggle and his admiration for Fidel Castro, this was not achieved in Venezuela by taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor.
It was accomplished by spending oil revenue differently.
He changed the political psychology of the country and it now has the potential to be a Saudi Arabia with democracy.
That is not a bad thing to be and the Venezuelan opposition has finally grasped that fact.
It remains for Chavez’s own party to understand it has actually won the war and to stop re-fighting old battles. A spell in opposition might help it to come to terms with its proper role in the new Venezuelan political consensus — no longer an embattled revolutionary” movement, but the more radical alternative in a more or less egalitarian democracy.
This will be hard for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela to do because the people around Chavez are still addicted to the rhetoric and the mindset of “struggle” against the forces of evil they see on every side.
Maduro, for example, could not resist claiming Chavez's cancer had been induced by foul play by Venezuela's enemies when he announced the leader’s death.
One day, Maduro promised, a scientific commission would investigate whether Chavez's illness was brought about by what he called an enemy attack, presumably by the United States.
Ridiculous, paranoid stuff, and it shows just how far the United Socialist Party of Venezuela has to travel to take its proper place in a modern, democratic Venezuela.
But, the journey has begun — and it will probably get there in the end.
Gwynne Dyer’s columns appear in publications in 45 countries. His website can be found here.