A Decade of Hugo Chávez

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

February 14, 2009

We should have known that something was amiss when, during President Hugo Chávez’s inauguration on February 2, 1999, he swore on Venezuela’s 40-year-old Constitution by declaring it “moribund.”

Under “the moribund,” as the Constitution came to be known, Venezuela not only had eight peaceful presidential transitions, but also enjoyed the fruits of democratic pluralism and strong civil and political liberties. Of course, during this period Venezuela produced as much corruption and political irresponsibility as it did barrels of oil. Nonetheless, Venezuela fared far better than the average Latin American country. It wasn’t Switzerland, but, by anyone’s measure, it was a genuine democracy.

Not anymore. Elections are still held, but the legacy of Chávez’s decade in power consists, first and foremost, in the demolition of democratic institutions. Elected in a landslide to clean up the political vices of the previous establishment, Chávez chose to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The previous regime, including its system of checks and balances and its tradition of political tolerance, did disappear, but its vices – particularly graft and demagoguery – became worse than ever. Pretty much like 10 years ago, Venezuela, once a destination for immigrants from around the world, remains under-developed.

More fundamentally, Chávez represents ideas that have long stifled Latin America’s political and economic growth. This includes the notion that social justice can be achieved only by abandoning the path of reform and rejecting “bourgeois” democratic forms in favor of “real” democracy, born of revolutionary purity and the leader’s millenarian dreams. That’s simply false. Though the Chávez revolution has made progress against poverty and inequality, it is hardly sustainable and reeks of patronage.

In fact, one can find similar achievements in Chile and Brazil, which have not given up on democratic checks and balances, political pluralism, or freedom of the press, and have not enjoyed the luxury of $300 billion in oil revenue in the space of one decade. Moreover, it ought not to be forgotten that between 1950 and 1980, Venezuela itself reduced extreme poverty from 43% to 8% of the population, one of the lowest figures in Latin America. It did so with democracy and freedom.

Chávez also repeats, ad nauseam , the idea that others are to blame for Latin America’s ills. This is the pernicious victimization narrative – still very popular in universities across Latin America – the late Venezuelan journalist Carlos Rangel eloquently refuted in books such as The Third World Ideology .

It is obvious that Yankee imperialism cannot be blamed for Venezuela’s emaciated tax system, dismally bad schools, rampant corruption, high crime rate, and feeble political institutions. In all of these areas, Venezuela is faring poorly even by Latin America’s low standards. This is particularly true in the case of institutional weakness. When Chávez declares “moribund” a legitimate constitution, or when he proclaims l’état c’est moi by declaring a national holiday to commemorate his 10 years in power, we see eloquent examples of a homemade institutional farce that would doom any country to the ninth circle of misery.

None of these ideas would fly, of course, in a contented nation. In this sense, Venezuela’s experience speaks to all of Latin America. The combination of economic growth (now in reverse because of the global crisis) and atrocious levels of inequality and social segmentation will continue to breed the same unmet expectations and social resentment that cleared Chávez’s path to power.

As long as Latin America’s democracies fail to take seriously the tasks of reducing inequality, spreading opportunity, and nurturing more cohesive societies, they will continue to court disaster. To avoid this outcome, it is vital to purge certain reactionary and numbing beliefs, including the idea that reducing poverty obviates the need to address inequality, or that development is possible without introducing modern and progressive tax systems.

If the tenth anniversary of Chávez’s tenure can serve as a reminder of the perils that beset unjust democracies – especially now that a new electoral cycle in Latin America looms – then Venezuela’s agonizing recent history would, at least, be redeemed.

This opinion is also available in Spanish. Versions of this piece have been published in Daily Times (Pakistan), The News Today (Bangladesh), The Jordan Times (Jordan), The Malta Independent (Malta), Taipei Times (Taiwan), Guatemala Times (Guatemala), El Tiempo (Colombia), El Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua), La Nación (Costa Rica), El Cronista Comercial (Argentina), and Diario de las Américas (Miami, USA).