Normally, in this blog, I don’t venture outside the Southern Cone countries, but the week’s biggest event has taken place in the only South American country I have never visited – Venezuela, where the charismatic president Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday. Some Venezuelans might disagree that I have never set foot in the country, because I have visited parts of neighboring Guyana over which Venezuela has an irredentist claim, but I can assert that I’ve never had a Venezuelan stamp in my passport.
Chávez, of course, was a controversial and polemical figure. Like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, he was a military golpista (coupmonger) although, unlike Pinochet, his attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s constitutional government failed. When he finally did ascend to the presidency, through legitimate elections, he went about concentrating power through patronage politics, largely financed by oil revenues. Despite his ability to communicate with his country’s dispossessed, Chávez did them a great disservice – with his hyper-personalized politics and short attention span toward policy, he undermined the country’s institutions. Though he was not personally murderous (unlike Pinochet), his de facto neglect helped make Venezuela one of the world’s most violent countries – the capital of Caracas averages two homicides per hour.
In a recent edition of The New Yorker, journalist Jon Lee Anderson (biographer of Che Guevara) described Chávez as the “Slumlord of Caracas” in an article that would discourage just about anyone else thinking of visiting the city. On Tuesday, Anderson published an incisive post-mortem follow-up that characterized the former colonel as one of the world’s “most flamboyantly provocative leaders.” Anderson’s nuanced assessment of Chávez avoids demonizing him, but does point out his contradictions and weaknesses; the late Christopher Hitchens was not so generous in writing about his own personal encounter with the Venezuelan caudillo.
Chávez is gone, but will Chavismo survive? Oddly, the Caracas caretaker government prohibited mourners from snapping photographs of the autocrat in his open casket but, according to his designated successor Nicolás Maduro (pending elections), Venezuela will mummify the corpse for public display in a monument worthy of Lenin or Mao. This would make a great supplementary chapter for Heather Pringle’s remarkable study The Mummy Congress, but the Venezuelans could look for precedents closer to home – the Chinchorro mummies of Chile, for instance, or Evita Perón in Recoleta (though Evita’s cadaver is not on public view, the crypt is).
None of Chávez’s strongest ideological allies, most notably Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Cristina Fernández of Argentina, has the charisma to assume his role on the global or even the regional stage. More than that, none of them has the petro-dollars that Chávez used to buy his way onto the scene (Ecuador is an oil exporter, and OPEC member, but a relatively small one). President Fernández, for her part, believes just as strongly in patronage politics but has even fewer options – not only has she had to undertake emergency measures to keep dollars from fleeing the country, but she was also in hock to Hugo – as the conspicuous presence of his "Bolivarian" PDVSA, in the Buenos Aires barrio of Retiro, would indicate. Not so long ago, Argentina was self-sufficient in oil but, after decades of mismanagement, it now has to import.