Hugo Chavez was the foremost leader of Leftist politics across the region. When he picked his favoured successor three days after winning his final election, he resoundingly declared: “This revolution doesn’t depend on one man!” With his passing, those words will now be put to the test.
The red torch of Venezuela’s ‘Revolution’ will be handed to Nicolas Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who became vice-president last October. No one doubts that Maduro, a loyal ‘Chavista’, agrees with his deceased mentor on every substantive issue. Nonetheless, it remains a safe bet that some elements of the Revolution will die with Chavez.
In his last months, the late president liked to claim that Venezuela was governed by a collective leadership. Every citizen knew this to be absurd, for Chavez was the prime exemplar of one-man rule. Until cancer dragged the strength from him, he would take almost every decision himself, working into the early hours, scrawling his signature on official documents. Instead of consulting his ministers, he would issue quixotic orders as the fancy took him, sometimes on live television.
In 2008, Chavez threatened to wage war on neighbouring Colombia during an episode of Alo Presidente, his weekly talk show. “Mr Defence Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me immediately,” he declared, in the sure knowledge that his hapless underling would be watching. For good measure, Chavez added: “And deploy the air force!”
The cabinet became so moribund that Chavez did not even trouble to attend its meetings, ensuring that nothing big happened save by order of the ‘comandante’ himself. The resolutely unflamboyant Maduro is unlikely to emulate this personalised method of government. Yet the Revolution has deep institutional roots, said Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, from the Institute of the Americas at University College London. Its ethos permeates the “army, the national oil company, the judicial system — sadly — and the Congress, not to mention at the grassroots level”, he said.
The late president was often more pragmatic than he liked to appear, perhaps more so than Maduro. “We on the outside shouldn’t assume that Chavez was the most inflexible and ideological of the Chavistas,” added Bulmer-Thomas.
Running out of steam
But key strands of the Revolution were running out of steam even in Chavez’s lifetime. The essential, and entirely laudable, goal was to use Venezuela’s oil wealth for the good of the poor, something which no previous president had seriously attempted. The potential was immense, for Venezuela possesses the biggest proven oil reserves in the world: 296 billion barrels, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 265 billion, according to BP’s World Energy Review. Moreover, oil prices rose more than tenfold during Chavez’s presidency, climbing from $10 (Dh36.7) per barrel when he won power in December 1998 to peak at $147 in July 2008. This delivered revenues of about $980 billion to PDVSA, the state oil company.
Chavez was able to spend billions on bringing health care and education to the poor, building clinics in the slums of Caracas. But Maduro will know that this brand of economic management also rendered Venezuela more and more dependent on oil. While most nations with similar natural wealth tried to diversify their economies, Chavez did the exact opposite. By 2011, oil accounted for 96 per cent of Venezuela’s export earnings, compared with 80 per cent a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, Chavez toughened the terms for foreign energy companies, causing many to leave. The result was that oil production fell from 3.1 million barrels per day in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2011, representing a cumulative loss of tens of billions of dollars.
While betting Venezuela’s future on oil, Chavez also placed his country on a path of steadily declining output. Maduro must try to reverse this disastrous combination; otherwise the social programmes that were Chavez’s great achievement will eventually become unaffordable. And there lies the rub: reviving production would mean accepting the expertise of the foreign oil companies that Chavez so fiercely denounced.
To preserve the best of Chavez’s legacy, his successor will have to dismantle central planks of the Revolution. As Maduro grapples with that paradox, the era of one-man rule is almost certainly over.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2013