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Speaking about Hugo Chavez's Legacy on CNN and al-Jazeera

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.

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Discussing Chavez's Legacy

Tectonic political developments today as the world seeks to come to terms with Hugo Chavez's death and the late populist leader's true legacy. As readers of my writing will know I have been somewhat critical of the Bolivarian Revolution over the years, though truly it has been a sad day. Whatever one thinks of Chavez, he certainly managed to bring about fundamental change for millions of people through his movement.

At any rate, I just went in for an interview with John Fugelsang on Current TV's Viewpoint. Also speaking on the panel was former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Jeffrey Davidow. Unfortunately, the video no longer seems to exist online.

What is more, I just concluded an interview with the CBC of Canada [can't find online, but some comments incorporated here.

And, just now concluded roundtable on HuffPost Live with yet another U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro. Apparently, the link has been taken down, however.

For a more extensive interview, check out my exchange with Sam Seder of Majority Report which is available here.

For a wider discussion of Chavez's relationship with Hollywood, see my quotes in The Grio today as well. And don't forget to see my earlier articles about Oliver Stone and Danny Glover too.

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Venezuela: Who's in Control?

Just who, exactly, is in charge of Venezuela right now? That was the question posed to me late last night by al-Jazeera [the video, apparently, is unavailable online]. It's a perfectly reasonable question, though few seem to have much of a sense of what is happening behind the scenes. The issue has recently come to a head due to President Chavez's longstanding illness and inability to attend his own inauguration. The Venezuelan Supreme Court, meanwhile, has stated that Chavez may postpone the inauguration to a future date, though the opposition has cried foul.

The confusion has led some Venezuelans to wonder who might actually be in control. Officially speaking, Vice President Nicolas Maduro is now the de facto leader of the country, and would probably run as Chavez's official candidate in the event of new elections. Believe it or not, however, the Venezuelan constitution is subject to some interpretation in the event of problematic presidential successions. Some experts say the inauguration can be postponed, while others claim that Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello must declare a caretaker government and then call for new elections.

Whatever the case, uncertainty over the succession could cause major disruptions to the Venezuelan political system. As I remarked to al-Jazeera, the longer this crisis plays out the greater the chances for instability and unrest, similar to the 2002-2004 period when the opposition launched strikes and other destabilization in an effort to topple Chavez from power. Also unknown is the future political role of the military: presumably Chavez still commands a lot of influence over the armed forces though the succession crisis could give rise to division within the ranks.

What might be the role of the U.S. in this unfolding drama? During my interview, I suggested that Obama might pursue a cautious course for the time being, careful to avoid the impression of choosing sides. When the Bush administration blatantly allied itself with the right wing opposition in 2002, and Chavez defeated a short-lived coup, Washington was completely humiliated. To be sure, Obama may see opportunity in this crisis, but don't expect him to take sides any time soon.

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Prospects Dimming for Revolutionary Change in Venezuela

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Quoted in USA Today

As Chavez fights for his life, eyes are turning to Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's Foreign Minister, who is viewed as a likely political successor. When asked to comment by USA Today reporter Peter Wilson, I expressed doubts about Maduro's ability to unite diverse constituencies within Chavez's PSUV party. Furthermore, as readers of this website are aware, I am skeptical about all the possible Chavez successors including Maduro, Diosdado Cabello and Hugo's brother Adan.

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How Hugo Chavez Botched the Arab Spring

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Chávez Needs a Successor, but Lacks Good Instincts

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WikiLeaks and Venezuela Election: Lingering Questions about Identification Cards

On balance, Venezuelan elections under Chávez have been handled pretty fairly and many observers agree that the system has been free of glaring irregularities. Yet, if WikiLeaks cables are any indication, some potential underlying problems still remain. At issue is the so-called “Misión Identidad” or “Identity Mission,” a government program which has registered new voters.

The Chávez government started the initiative in 2003 in an effort to provide identification cards to the disenfranchised poor which up until that time had not possessed any official government identification. Misión Identidad, which was administered by the National Office of Identification and Naturalization or ONIDEX, formed part of a number of other social-based programs known as missions. Without any official Venezuelan identification, the poor would not able to vote or acquire benefits from social services.

In theory it all sounds good but according to U.S. diplomatic cables “the Chávez government has politicized this social service and used it to improve its electoral standing.” Perhaps, the system could even give Chávez a leg up in today’s presidential election. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that Cuba, a key strategic ally of Venezuela in the wider region, has provided key expertise to Chávez on how to expand the country's national electoral registry, and through Misión Identidad the authorities were able to register a whopping two million new voters.

As far back as 2006, the Chávez government used the “tried and true method of stuffing the voter registry” by naturalizing migrants and handing out identification cards through Mision Identidad. According to the Americans, Chávez “unabashedly used the Misión Identidad program as a tool for garnering more votes.” Since most of the Misión Identidad employees were “avowed Chavistas,” the implication was “clear” that applicants were expected to vote for Chávez. Moreover, those who received new ID cards would probably be grateful to Chávez and more inclined to vote for him.

Many of the registrations were carried out in “mass naturalizations” in frontier states like Zulia and Táchira along the Colombian border. The U.S. Embassy reported that “little if any documentation is needed for this process.” In a scathing indictment, the Americans wrote that ONIDEX and Misión Identidad were “rife with corruption.”

If today’s presidential contest is close, perhaps we will hear more questions about the use of these types of programs. Stay tuned.

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Venezuela Election, WikiLeaks and Escalating Urban Crime

To hear Hugo Chávez speak of it, crime is a kind of red herring issue in the Venezuelan presidential election. Recently, when asked if he would beef up security and hire more policemen, the populist leader pooh-poohed the entire notion, remarking that such a strategy responded to a mere right wing ethos. To be sure, conservatives tend to favor such draconian crackdowns which are no substitute for true and lasting social reform. Yet, Chávez may pay a stiff political price for flippantly disregarding the need for greater control over urban crime.

Indeed, some observers believe that violence could be the single most pressing issue in the election. Venezuela’s homicide rate now makes the nation one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the murder rate is now four times higher than it was when Chávez first took office 13 years ago. Of particular concern is Caracas, which displays an alarming homicide rate of 92 per 100,000 residents. That is the third highest homicide rate of any large city in the world, and according to Time magazine there are 50 murders in the city every week. The dead have been piling up and filling morgues, making Caracas even deadlier than Baghdad.

For Chávez, escalating urban crime represents a keen vulnerability heading into tomorrow’s presidential election. Kidnappers, who reportedly operate in tandem with the police, pick up victims from cars, shopping centers, university campuses or even bus stops. Exasperated by the constant state of fear, many young Venezuelans choose to emigrate out of the country. Meanwhile, Chávez recently announced a security plan though it was the president’s 20th such initiative and failed to reassure. The President’s conservative challenger, Henrique Capriles Randonski, has pledged to get tough on violent crime though making a serious dent in the problem could take years.

Some sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Venezuelan crime make for sobering reading. In one communication disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas suggests that the Chávez government is deliberating falsifying crime reports. When the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal suggested that the murder rate had risen 14% in the first trimester of 2008 despite a security crackdown, the authorities accused the paper of “media terrorism” and claimed that murders had actually declined 8% over the same period.

Such claims, however, were revealed as bogus when U.S. diplomats spoke with the former chief coroner of the Caracas morgue, who confirmed that the murder rate had indeed risen. Meanwhile, civil society non-governmental organizations complained that Chávez officials concealed the true homicide figures. They told the Americans that officials failed to list deaths due to police encounters, custodial deaths in prison or so-called “unexplained deaths” as genuine homicides. In its report, the American Embassy explained that the term “unexplained death” concealed a large percentage of homicides. In one case, for example, tenant farmers cleared land and discovered two bodies in a grisly and shallow grave. The incident was later reported as “unexplained deaths.”

Another slippery tactic employed by the authorities was to manipulate time to hide murder statistics. When they compared weekly figures, officials only used Monday to Thursday or Friday of the current week in relation to the seven days of the previous week. In such a way, the Chávez government passed over homicides during the weekend, when murder rates tended to spike. The U.S. Embassy noted that the authorities had carried out high profile anti-crime operations and lofty propaganda, but “crime is undermining public support for the Revolutionary Bolivarian government.” Indeed, the coroner who agreed to speak with the Americans confessed that he had resigned his position as head of the metropolitan forensics unit because of “increased political interference” from high up officials.

At the time of the report, U.S. diplomats noted that “crime is a pressing societal problem that the Revolutionary Bolivarian government cannot solve just by throwing money at it.” However, the Americans continued, neither the government nor opposition parties had come up with “credible, comprehensive plans to combat urban crime.”

Then, as now, crime is a hot button topic in Venezuela and could represent Chávez’s Achilles Heel. Whether Capriles, however, can effectively exploit the issue tomorrow remains to be seen.

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Interview on al-Jazeera English

Check out my most recent interview on al-Jazeera English, a panel discussion which centered on the Venezuelan election and the wider issues in Latin America. To see the interview, click here.

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