What Hugo Chavez Built: The Legacy of Latin-American 'Chavismo'

Among the polarizing Venezuelan leader's biggest accomplishments? Redefining South America's regional architecture.

Chavez poster banner.jpg
A poster of Venezuelan President Chavez attached with a picture of Jesus Christ is seen during a rally in Caracas on January 10, 2013. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Washington loves a good charismatic caudillo to anoint as its foil in Latin America. Over the last decade, Fidel Castro deftly, albeit unofficially, turned over that job to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Though the Cuban revolution's ties to Venezuela stretch back over half a century, Fidel didn't invent Chavez -- the former army paratrooper emerged from his own country's history. As Chavez struggles for his own life in a Havana hospital, it's worth considering the legacy he's built.

Early in his presidency, Chavez remarked that he saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history -- a claim that may be as true regionally as it is nationally. The 14 years of his tenure coincided with a consensus across the continent favoring socially inclusive economic growth, democratic representation, and independence from the U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities of the previous century. Chavez embraced each of these features of the new Latin America to the extreme. Though his taste for the stage, for inflammatory rhetoric, and for provocation was out of sync with the region's preference for practical problem-solving, his claim to have been a transitional leader might not be far off.

Chavez didn't get everything he wanted. Among his unfulfilled dreams was the Pipeline of the South, a $25-billion, 5,000-mile conduit for oil that would have run from the Orinoco River to Patagonia. Brazil objected. Even a slightly more modest idea, a pipeline to Cuba, never got off the ground. A South American Development Bank project met a similar fate -- inaugurated in 2009 this time with Brazil's support, but in the end, no country, not even Venezuela itself, put up capital to launch the venture. Likewise, visions of continental-scale housing, highways and other investment stalled before they began.

Although Hugo Chavez was only five years old when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, their fates were already intertwined.

But if Chavez lost on some big-ticket items, he can take at least partial credit for helping redefine South America's institutional architecture. MERCOSUR, South America's big trading bloc, is a different beast than it was before Venezuela became a full member. Whether Brazil's strategy to push for Venezuelan membership in MERCOSUR was the product of realpolitik and commercial interests or sheer ideology is up for debate. Nor, contrary to conventional wisdom advanced by some observers, has Chavez blown up UNASUR, an institution that has helped ward off conflict in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. With respect to South America, even despite his bombastic display at summits -- the 2005 Mar de Plata circus comes to mind -- the pressure was on Chavez to play by the neighborhood's evolving rules, not the reverse.

ALBA, the nine-member association of quasi-likeminded "Bolivarian" countries, is of course the big Chavez victory, one that might well give future Venezuelan presidents -- whatever their political leanings -- continued influence in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean. It is safe to say that Caracas spent billions on ALBA development projects, especially those related to oil. Petrocaribe gave ALBA members, along with five other participating countries, preferential pricing on Venezuelan oil imports, payable over 25 years at 1 percent interest. Whatever the impact in the form of political patronage, cash transfers from Venezuela offset the budgets of central governments, producing other direct benefits -- in the form of new roads, health-care, and energy grids. After visiting Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, a former head of the United States Southern Command told me that he was surprised to see such tangible impact from Venezuela's largesse.

* * *

Chavez came of age during the Cold War, when, to avoid a repeat of the 1959 Castro revolution, the United States deployed throughout Latin America its considerable arsenal to keep the left weak, through covert operations, counterinsurgency, coups, or meddling with elections. During this period, between the 1950s and the late 1980s, unelected generals ran most of Latin America, with American blessing, training and support. At the time, Venezuela (and Colombia) stood out to a self-satisfied Foggy Bottom and to some political scientists as reassuring exceptions to South America's right-wing military regimes: twin poster children for democracy, albeit elite-brokered, shallow, and one that coexisted with extreme inequality and poverty -- not to mention disfranchisement of poor majorities. Although solidly ensconced in the barracks, a nationalist strain in Venezuela's military seeded Chavez' skepticism about American power, which in turn became in his view inseparable from Washington's entrenched backing of Venezuela's elite.

Although Hugo Chavez was only five years old when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, their fates were already intertwined. Before launching an insurgency against Washington's Cuban surrogate Fulgencio Batista, as a young Havana lawyer Castro also had developed a belief in the inextricable link between American power and Cuba's and Latin America's thwarted economic and political development. As armed revolution unfolded in Cuba, in Venezuela in the late 1950s a coalition of church, society, student, labor, and business groups peacefully pressured the military to ease itself out of power. But Cuban revolutionaries needed international help. In 1958, the political wing of Fidel's 26th of July Movement persuaded a transitional Venezuelan president, navy commander Wolfgang Larrazabal, to ship weapons to Cuba's Sierra Maestra, giving a boost to Fidel's final push to topple Fulgencio Batista. Just three weeks after taking power, in January 1959 a triumphant Fidel flew to Caracas to say thank-you. In contrast to the stoning Richard Nixon's motorcade received during a 1958 visit, crowds cheered as Fidel preached the new gospel of Latin American unity, people-to-people solidarity, and revolution, themes Chavez would try to advance decades later.

Cuba's influence over Venezuela should not be underestimated. The balance of power lies squarely in Havana.

But with oil rents greasing the wheels, Venezuelan elites looked aghast at the Cuban revolution and took up the banner of social democracy and Christian democracy, organizing themselves into a two-party system that lasted until the end of the 1980s, when their heavily subsidized petro-state became financially and politically unsustainable. A short-lived guerrilla insurgency supported by Cuba was crushed in the 1960s, and non-violent leftist efforts to diversify Venezuelan politics never truly got off the ground. As a young army officer and with the spirit of General Simon Bolivar animating his political thought, Chavez incubated his anti-elite, anti-imperial vision of continental, popular unity in this context.

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Julia E. Sweig is a senior fellow and director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo.

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