Will Chavez be Good for Venezuela?

Caracas Chronicles blogger Toro and Venezuelanalysis.com editor Wilpert debate the future of Venezuela in a Norwegian magazine.

Editor’s note: The following debate took place under strict space limitations of one exhange of 250 words each and then two exchanges of 150 words each.

Francisco Toro: Ever since he tried to overthrow Venezuela’s elected government by force, back in 1992, Hugo Chávez has never wavered from his central aim: to dismantle the institutions of Venezuela’s representative democracy and centralize all power in his own hands. Following Fidel Castro’s playbook, Chávez understands revolution as the opposite of deliberation, and dissent as tantamount to treason. 

Chávez has always prized loyalty over competence, turning every part of the state into a conduit for personal power. His “march through the institutions”, has led him through the courts, the prosecutors, the state oil company, regional governments, the elections council, the human rights ombudsman and the corruption watchdog, the Armed Forces, and even such apolitical bodies as IVIC, our Scientific Research Institute. One by one, they have been eviscerated, politicized and turned into instruments of his extremist ideological vision.

Considering the burgeoning cult of personality he has built, Venezuela’s future under Chávez looks distressingly like its past; a return to the era of the 19th century “caudillos” – strongmen who ruled Venezuela as a personal fiefdom. 

As he continues to centralize power, Chávez will tend to go from ignoring dissidents to persecuting them. The intolerance that has been his trademark all along will turn inward as well, as he applies increasingly stringent loyalty tests to his supporters and purges “unreliable elements.” Our spaces for dissent – already diminished – will tend vanish. 

So, will Chávez be good for Venezuela? Well, only if you believe autocracy can bring social progress.

Gregory Wilpert: Toro is half right, Chavez has indeed never wavered from his central aim: to dismantle the institutions of Venezuela’s old regime. For Chavez and his supporters the old regime was a hopelessly corrupt system that excluded the country’s poor. However, Chavez did not dismantle this old system to centralize power in his hands, but to improve the lives of the country’s poor majority. This is why Venezuelans believe in their democracy now more than ever before and more than practically any other country in Latin America (according to www.latinobarometro.com) and why Chavez keeps winning one election after the other.

Today, the country’s poor are being included politically for the first time in the Venezuelan history and included economically since the dismantling of the Venezuelan welfare state in the 1980’s and 1990’s. New programs and institutions such as rural and urban land reform, communal councils, popular referenda, and a wide variety of new social programs to alleviate poverty have made a real difference in ordinary Venezuelans’ lives. In the long run, this is not only good for the country´s poor, but also for the country in general because it contributes to the overcoming of Venezuela´s social polarization.

To members of Venezuela’s old elite this dismantling only looks like an usurpation of power and authoritarianism because they have been completely excluded from these changes because of their numerous losses in elections. It is not Chavez’s fault that he was given an overwhelming majority in the Constitutional Assembly and in the National Assembly that eventually allowed his supporters to control all branches of power. Rather, it was the success of his policies and the failures of the opposition that brought this about.

Francisco Toro: We hear a lot about empowering the poor, but what does it really mean? In practice, it really means empowering chavistas, since dissidents, rich or poor, are suspected of treason and sidelined from decision-making at all levels.

The social programs chavistas so proudly tout are part of a system to enforce loyalty: recipients get indoctrination along with their education, red hats and t-shirts along with their benefit checks. Even the army is politicized and cowed, with troop commanders forced to shout party political slogans during military parades.

Chavez has always dressed up his authoritarianism in pro-poor rhetorical garb. It’s his all-purpose alibi. But really what he proposes is a quid-pro-quo: empowerment in exchange for ideological conformity.

Promised liberation, what Venezuela’s poor have received is generously oil-funded autocracy. So long as oil prices remain high, this strategy is sustainable. But when oil prices fall, will Chávez replace the petrodollar with the prison cell?

Gregory Wilpert: The difference between empowering the poor, the majority, and Chavistas is difficult to see because these groups mostly overlap. Critics such as Toro, who are in the minority, are bound to perceive the empowering process in Venezuela as one that excludes them, since they are in the minority.

That Venezuela’s social programs are designed to reinforce loyalty is an opposition myth. While it might be true that some programs have this unfortunate consequence because centuries of patronage are not abolished that easily, it cannot be denied that millions of Venezuelans are benefiting from these programs and from greater community participation regardless of their political loyalties – and will continue to do so in the years to come.

In an age of neo-liberalism, Venezuela’s participatory democracy and massive redistribution of land and tax revenues are models for the rest of Latin America and the world, even if other countries do not have oil revenues because the principles underlying these policies do not require oil. I believe that other countries will be well advised to follow this path in the future.

Francisco Toro: Wilpert’s insistence that I am in the minority is telling. Nobody has questioned that the lavish expense of oil resources has earned Chávez majority support. It is precisely the question of the majority’s treatment of the minority that is at stake here. As any schoolboy knows, majorities are entitled to rule only so long as they respect minority rights, which is precisely what chavismo refuses to do.

The notion that majority-support somehow entitles the majority to exercise autocratic control over the state is the clearest exhibition of the majority’s inability to understand the rudiments of the democratic system. The revolutionary’s conception of power as unlimited shines through such a formulation, and must give the democratically minded pause for thought.

One thing is for sure: only an accident of geology makes the Chávez experiment remotely sustainable. Without nearly unlimited oil revenues, chavismo is unthinkable. It will not be repeated elsewhere, simply because it cannot be repeated elsewhere.

Gregory Wilpert: That Chavez disrespects minority rights is another opposition myth that is at the root of the opposition’s refusal to accept Chavez as the legitimately elected president of Venezuela. No one in Venezuela argues that the minority is not entitled to its rights; only that Chavez supporters—currently the majority—have the right to control all branches of government because they have won all eleven electoral contests of the past eight years.

That Chavez’s popularity is only due to the current high oil revenues completely ignores that Chavez first came into office and also was brought back into office after the 2002 coup without the help of oil revenues.

Chavez and his supporters are using their political power to redistribute wealth and to increase grassroots democratic participation. Ten years from now this will mean a far more egalitarian and democratic society than when Chavez first came into office.

Francisco Toro: Ten years from now, Venezuela will look rather like Cuba. Perhaps not so impoverished – we will still have plenty of oil revenue to keep up some spending – but just as unfree. A revolutionary elite, comfortable knowing its power is unassailable, will continue to live in luxury while repressing all who dissent.

They will tell themselves that they seek only to empower the poor. So what reason could there be for dissenting, other than hating the country and conspiring with the US? Better to crush the “fifth columnists” – the better to serve those who really matter, the true, the virtuous, the revolutionary.

Fueled by Chávez’s messianic streak, lacking any institutions able to hold it accountable, in the next ten years Venezuela will travel the same sad road so many previous socialist experiments have traveled. Sooner or later – sadly, probably later – democracy will have its Caracas Spring.

Gregory Wilpert: Fifty years ago Toro’s prediction might have come true because back then many socialists placed far less importance on individual rights and on democracy. We live in a different world today and the socialism of the Chavez government places human and civil rights and democracy on an equal footing with achieving a more egalitarian society. Its actions, of holding far more elections than any other government in the region, of giving its minorities—the indigenous, the disabled, and women—unprecedented rights, and its massive wealth redistribution efforts prove this.

Venezuela still lives with many of the vices it inherited from previous regimes. The opposition focuses only on these old vices, to which it contributed, and completely ignores the vast areas of improvement that have taken place in ordinary Venezuelans’ lives.

If the Venezuelan opposition stops its destabilization game and lets Chavez govern, then Venezuela has a very bright future.

Originally published in the Norwegian magazine Verdensmagasinet X (www.xmag.no)

Francisco Toro writes the blog Caracas Chronicles. He is a graduate student currently in Holland and a former journalist for the New York Times and Veneconomy.com.

Gregory Wilpert is a freelance journalist and editor of Venezuelanalysis.com and author of the forthcoming book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, September 2007).