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As Latin America and the wider world seek to come to terms with the death of Hugo Chavez, many may wonder about the Venezuelan populist's political legacy.
In the immediate term, the deceased comandante's shadow will loom large over Venezuela's next snap presidential election which will be held on April 14. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's former Foreign Minister, will face off against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who previously challenged Chavez for the presidency and lost.
As I discussed on al-Jazeera English this evening [apparently no link available], the election may hinge on who can best come off as "Chavez-lite." Capriles is unlikely to question Chavez's adherence to social programs which redistributed wealth to the neediest. Indeed, while he served as Governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles actually emulated Chavez by adopting similar populist social programs himself. In this sense, Capriles is probably the most electable candidate to spring from the opposition, which was historically fractured and extremely fanatical. On the other hand, there is a great deal of sympathy for Chavez, and Maduro will benefit from his association with the Bolivarian Revolution. Even though Maduro lacks Chavez's charisma, he can bank on favorable blanket coverage from state-run media and support from Chavez's own PSUV political machine.
As I stated on al-Jazeera, my concern is that there will be very little space for a more radical discussion during this short-lived campaign. Though the candidates may disagree about foreign policy, they essentially agree on the overall contours of domestic social policy. Indeed, the fundamental psychological mindset of the Venezuelan poor has shifted so dramatically under Chavez that it is unlikely that any president, let alone a conservative one, would dare to turn back the clock and reintroduce the kinds of market reforms which characterized political life during the 1990s.
With no substantial disagreements on the social front, the campaign may center upon other issues such as urban crime. But while frightening homicides in Caracas and other cities are certainly important, such concerns pale beside the larger question of the Bolivarian Revolution and radical transformation of political life. What of the economic cooperatives, communal councils, ALBA and alternative currencies? These are all measures which serve to reconfigure fundamental power relations, and though some programs have been linked to cronyism and corruption, they represent an idealistic challenge to the underpinnings of the capitalist state.
A couple of days ago, while speaking on Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, I touched on such vital questions during a roundtable panel discussion [apparently the entire segment is unavailable, though you can watch this snippet which unfortunately does not include me]. The other guests included Moises Naim, a Venezuelan writer and columnist who was previously associated with IESA, a conservative business school in Caracas which pushed economic reforms eschewed by Chavez. We were also joined by Rory Carroll of the Guardian newspaper.
With Naim staking out the predictable anti-Chavez right, maybe Zakaria thought I would take up the full role of Chavez partisan. At the beginning of the interview, the CNN host turned to me and asked, "you like Chavez, right?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, though I wasn't entirely sure how to respond. Discussions about Chavez tend to split between ideological partisans on both sides, and there's often very little space for additional views. As readers are aware, I have some mixed feelings about populism, a very polemical subject in Latin America. In the end, I think I answered something to the effect of "it's a mixed bag," though I might have easily added "it's complicated!"
It's difficult to convey a minority within a minority viewpoint sometimes, though hopefully the viewers will have understood that I am critical of Chavez --- not from the right but from the left. I said that Chavez was wrong to have embraced Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, which in the long run discredited Venezuela amongst the international left and revolutionaries associated with the Arab Spring.
In an effort to move the conversation into provocative territory, I also argued that Chavez had actually not gone too far but not far enough. Whatever the problems with the cooperatives, I declared, they should be improved upon in an effort to promote worker democracy. Predictably, Naim trashed the cooperatives and went on a rant about how Chavez had wrecked the economy. Rather disappointingly for a leftist Guardian columnist, Carroll kind of chimed in by pointing to flaws in the cooperative system.
I hope that the media will continue to touch upon Chavez's political legacy, and particularly the more radical and anti-capitalist measures which deserve more systematic attention and scrutiny. Perhaps, socialist constituencies within the Bolivarian camp or even anarchists can force likely presidential winner Maduro to deepen the ongoing process of social transformation. It's not an easy task, however, because Maduro --- like Chavez before him --- also answers to rival constituencies such as the managerial capitalist class.
As Latin America and the wider world ponders the post-Chavez landscape, it's hardly clear where the left goes from here. While Chavez radicalized the Venezuelan people through innovative programs, his haphazard government failed to follow through on lasting bottom up revolutionary change. Though populists like Chavez mobilize the people, they typically only go so far and never overturn the social order. If anything, Maduro seems more cautious and diplomatic than Chavez and seems to eschew the inflammatory rhetoric of his mentor.
Perhaps, Rafael Correa of Ecuador may inherit the Chavez mantle. Like his Venezuelan mentor, Correa is a populist who also employs fiery rhetoric to mobilize the masses. He is pretty popular, too, having just won reelection in a landslide. Whether he has the vision or even the desire to transform Ecuador into a radical social laboratory, however, is open to doubt. To be sure, the Ecuadoran has some interesting ideas about climate change and challenging the Global North on global warming, but overall Correa seems pretty intent on pursuing the extractive economy and this hardly bodes well for his relations with social forces on the ground. Over in Bolivia, meanwhile, Evo Morales also made noises about climate change at one time but even he has run afoul of the Indians who dislike the government's boondoggle projects.
From about 2002 to 2006, before he started to pursue more questionable and retrograde policies, Hugo Chavez injected a welcome note of idealism into Latin politics. If it wants to be successful, the next generation of regional leaders should think about taking up some of Chavez's empowering ideas such as economic cooperatives, ALBA barter, alternative currencies and communal councils, while avoiding all of the potential downsides like patronage networks and cronyism. If future leaders can build upon such an agenda, while incorporating concerns over climate change and the extractive economy, they just might succeed in bringing about long-term revolutionary change and not just charismatic populism which can often prove transitory or even ephemeral.