The problem with a post-Chávez Venezuela, in nutshell, is that we don’t know whether his regime will last. And that’s the real tragedy of it all.
As most reports yesterday and today (and into the near future) will point out, Hugo Chávez was a charismatic leader. What he seems most remembered for is his ability to connect with his country’s poor (the overwhelming majority of the oil-rich country’s population) and speak about their hopes, desires, and needs. But, after that, what’s left? By all accounts poverty is still endemic in Venezuela, income inequality has barely nudged at all, and crime has increased. After nearly 15 years in power, what tangible results does the “Bolivarian” revolution have to show for itself?
The real tragedy is that this was (to borrow from Gabriel García Marquez) a “chronicle of a death foretold.” Despite his government’s unwillingness to divulge information about the president’s health (transparency?), everyone knew he had been battling some form of cancer for at last two years. Eventually, it was too much to hide, and a few months ago Venezuelan state media began discussing it; they showed pictures of Chávez in a Cuban hospital bed, holding a newspaper (to prove that he was still alive). Rumors of his death swirled around. He was too sick to attend his own inauguration. Then, he suddenly returned (unseen) and was installed in a military hospital for recovery. By the time he died, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he died in Venezuela or Cuba—or when he died (now there are rumors that he died earlier, but it took a while to admit).
Regardless, the real problem is what political scientists would call institutionalization. Or, rather, the lack of it. The fact that their leader was clearly dying—or at least facing serious health issues—should have prompted chavista loyalists to prepare for an orderly transition. At the very least, someone other than Chávez should have run for the presidency in October of last year. They should’ve prepared for a future without Chávez. Because, after all, even if it didn’t come this week, it would come someday (all men, even iconoclasts, are mortal). But there were no preparations. In fact, when Chávez was so ill that he had to skip his own swearing in ceremony, it was unclear who was running the country—and there were fears of a power struggle within the chavista camp (those rumors are still swirling).
And that’s the ultimate tragedy, which will likely become better understood in later years. Chávez had so centralized power around himself, and fostered such a cult of personality, that perhaps even he couldn’t imagine a Venezuela without him. And for someone who spoke so often about the poor, he seemed to take no interest in what would happen to his most ardent supporters after his death.
Perhaps that explains the despair in the streets of Caracas. It’s not uncommon for a nation’s population to go into shock over the grief of a dead president. It happened in the US after JFK was assassinated. But that was a sudden death. This one was obviously coming, and coming soon. The despair in the streets of Caracas—and the frequent allusions that “there will never be another Chávez”—suggests that Venezuela’s long suffering poor know that there’s no institutional momentum behind the “Bolivarian” revolution. Their hopes were pinned on one man. And that man is gone.
In the end, that’s the bitter truth. And we’ll discover it soon enough. If the “Bolivarian” revolution can’t carry on without Chávez, then it was never a revolution (certainly not in any sociological sense). It was something else.