Venezuela after Chavez?

Hugo Chavez

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/mwasuk


By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate, Transnational Threats

Venezuela’s presidential election is rapidly approaching on 7 October, and observers cannot help but speculate whether the era of Hugo Chavez is coming to an end.

Chavez’s main challenger, Henrique Capriles, a lawyer and former governor of Miranda state, presents a rather different political model, one that is moderate and less confrontational (although perhaps less charismatic) and he appeals to a large portion of the population.

As governor of Miranda state, Capriles tried to replicate Brazilian President Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva’s approach of implementing pro-business policies while emphasising development and funding social programmes. He has also promised, if elected, to continue and to improve Chavez’s social programmes aimed at helping the poor.

But if elected he will face a number of challenges: forecasts of sluggish economic growth and high inflation resulting from deep structural damage done over the past few years; highly politicised armed forces, whose role as protectors of the country is linked to defending Chavez’s ‘revolution’ and the Bolivarian project; and relations with a far-from-independent Central Bank and entities such as the state oil corporation PDVSA. The latter’s management is closely linked with Chavez’s government, and Chavez is thought to be funnelling oil revenues into his government projects without approval from Congress.

To Chavez’s credit, his poverty-reduction strategy has produced some results. Levels of education have improved during his tenure and, although estimates vary, absolute poverty is thought to have been reduced from 17% in 1998 to 8–10% in 2012. But Mexican economist Arturo Franco, one of the panellists at a discussion at the IISS in London this week on Venezuela’s election, put these facts into context. While these indicators looked favourable in the context of the pre-Chavez era, comparing them to those of regional heavyweights such as Colombia and Brazil suggests that Venezuela in fact lags significantly behind its neighbours. In the region, Venezuela outperformed only Haiti in the Global Competitiveness Index, and ranked 124th out of 142 countries globally, thanks to an oil-centric socialist model that discourages private investment. Moreover, only half of the population is formally employed, with the number of unemployed hovering around six million.

Those attending the IISS discussion were eager to examine what would happen should Chavez fail to secure enough votes to win the election but refuse to leave office. Most agreed that the worst-case scenario, a civil war, was unlikely. Edmundo Gonzalez, a Venezuelan career diplomat and former ambassador to Argentina, attended via video-link. He shared statements from Defence Minister Henry Rangel and other senior military figures, in which they asserted that, for them, a Chavez victory would be the only acceptable outcome. It seems unlikely that Capriles would engage in a confrontation, having avoided attacking Chavez during the electoral campaign. However, if a post-election leadership crisis were to develop, the fact that many beneficiaries of the Chavez regime would be unwilling to relinquish their privileges, and that no regional or international actors would be willing or able to intervene could make such a crisis turn violent.

With a highly polarised Venezuelan electorate, the possibility that Chavez will be re-elected should not be dismissed. If he wins, it will probably be business as usual in Venezuela, but the question is, for how long? Chavez’s deteriorating health and his reluctance to groom a successor leave many questions unanswered. During the discussion, IISS Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk Nigel Inkster cited Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolas Maduro as someone regarded, in senior Latin American policy circles, as a possible successor – although Maduro was by no means the only candidate.

No successor will be able to replicate Chavez’s vision and charisma. For Venezuela, the most likely outcome in the medium term is a much-watered-down version of Bolivarianism, which should pose less risk to regional security.

Watch the panel discussion


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