A Chavista Future for Venezuela?

Will Chavismo continue to fade or will it manage to renew itself? Ociel López looks at the historic movement and its future prospects.

Chavismo is a political movement whose emergence shook Latin America in the 1990s when neoliberalism reigned as the dominant politico-economic model. It was the movement that inaugurated the progressive political cycle in the region and beyond. Chavismo was never exclusively left-wing, but it became a standard-bearer of left-wing and progressive movements around the world.

Twenty years later, after the death of its leader, the Bolivarian Revolution entered a spiral of errors, excesses, structural and tactical shortcomings, which alongside an international defamation campaign converted Venezuela into a paragon of socialist failure. Chavismo’s political leadership underwent a process of bureaucratization that closed its communication channels with the people, turning into a new elite cut off from the popular Chavista bases.

Over the course of the crisis, the country with the largest income per capita and the highest minimum wage in the region dropped to last in both categories. Venezuela, under the leadership of Chavismo, spawned between 2008 and 2014 enormous amounts of subsidized tourists and after 2015 huge numbers of migrants. This dramatic sea change took place over the span of three or four years.

From being the focal point of global left-wing expectations, Chavismo became a symbol of disgrace, above all as it continued in power while the regional right-wing subjected one progressive leader after another to judicial persecution: Lula da Silva, Cristina Kirchner, Rafael Correa, Dilma Rousseff. Only the imminent electoral defeat of Argentina’s Macri and the instability of Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Ecuador’s Moreno offers the realistic possibility that progressive governments can return to the region earlier than expected. When this happens, Chavismo will still have a lot of strength, and will probably be in power. Will Chavismo have a chance to revitalize itself in order to play a part in a hypothetical return of progressives to power? Will Chavismo be able to produce a new leadership or will Maduro stay in power indefinitely?

As this year of excessive international pressure comes to a close, the domestic opposition appears exhausted and has no victories to show for its efforts. And it’s precisely in this moment that the popular bases of Chavismo are again contesting the new bureaucratic class and its corruption. It began in 2018, when a few months after the presidential elections the Admirable Campesino March, and popular Chavismo in general, put forth a narrative that undermined the reassuring story told by the ruling PSUV elite. This opened the way for the rejuvenation of the left and the social movements, demobilized by the crisis and displaced by the open pact between Chavista elites and the powers-that-be on an economic and territorial level.

As such, Chavismo has a number of possible future scenarios, which we will analyze below.

A rollercoaster of events

Chavismo continues to govern Venezuela amid the country’s worst economic crisis and in the face of violent imperial efforts to overthrow it, like the April 30 coup attempt this year. Neither Chavismo’s disastrous administration in the last few years nor the severe international pressures (oil embargo, financial blockade, non-recognition of Maduro, and now full-scale embargo) have succeeded in toppling it. Every time that a pollster releases new figures, the most wayward analysts are always surprised upon seeing the high level of popular affinity former President Hugo Chávez commands and the important floor of electoral support Chavismo maintains, revealing that the movement still has a significant response capacity in the face of every assault by the domestic opposition and the United States. Luis Vicente León, director of widely cited, pro-opposition pollster Datanalisis, affirms that “even today, nearly half the country’s population values Chávez’s presidency positively.” Meanwhile, another important opposition consultant, Felix Seijas, states that “42 percent of Venezuelans say that under Chávez life was better and his time in government represented the baseline for normality for a relevant sector of the population.”

The gap between the appreciation of Chávez and the level of discontent caused by the economic crisis under Maduro leads one to think that a large number of Venezuelans see a clear difference between both administrations. On this basis, it could be inferred that a new leadership will seek to rescue the “original” legacy of Chávez so as to to win back a significant portion of the population that loved Chávez, became frankly disillusioned with Maduro, but continues to see the opposition elites as the enemy. We must consider all this without losing sight of the solid base of Chavismo, comprised of millions of people who would defend Maduro to the death. Is it possible to reunify this bloc of social forces outside of the institutions that have lost credibility? Can a new leadership emerge with the capacity to confront the country’s decline or is the fate of Chavismo already sealed?

Chavismo and opposition: A clash more social than ideological

Chavismo fragments the opposition because it establishes a class antagonism and a patriotic discourse that splits the opposition elites from their anti-Maduro bases. The Venezuelan opposition elite, based largely in the United States, issues calls for street violence, invasion, and sanctions that affect the people. This “Boltonist” wing of the opposition denounces the center-right social democratic parties with real territorial control, including governorships and mayorships, as “collaborators,” for the simple fact that the latter opts for an electoral solution. Their latest attempt to oust Maduro, Guaido’s self-proclamation, has ended up being more of a sham than a real power-play. Chavismo, though reduced in size, closes ranks to confront the enemy, while the opposition, despite having broad support, cannot present itself as a real alternative, above all because of its internal divisions.

For its part, the party and military structure that Chávez established for political continuity remains very solid. All branches of government remain in Chavista hands, with the exception of the National Assembly. Any opposition political leader is well-warned that in order to govern the country, they must abandon their criminological gaze and learn to deal with Chavismo, and not only as a political subject but also with its institutional structure and military command.

Even US Special Envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams, in an interview we discussed in our previous installment, has understood the need to recognize Chavismo, surely because of the solidity of the military sector. But Abrams does not want to face Chavismo in the electoral arena, because in his words, it could divide the opposition and “might actually win.” This is certainly a feasible scenario given the opposition’s abstentionist politics and the lopsided advantages of incumbency. Therefore, it’s logical that elections as formulated during Norway-mediated dialogue would be seen as a risk by the US administration.

In short, Chavismo could win an election in Venezuela, even in its worst moment, and Washington knows it.

Can Chavismo renew itself?

How can a movement whose leadership has a significant share of responsibility for the country’s worst socio-economic crisis revitalize itself?

The first reason is because Chavismo led the country from the social catastrophe of 1989-1998 to become a prosperous and egalitarian nation between 2004 and 2012. The generation that witnessed this change is the same that today electorally decides the strategic direction of the country. Chavismo has a hard floor of five or six million voters out of an electorate of twenty million, but Venezuelan migration – reaching approximately four million people – affects mainly the opposition. Moreover, the opposition suffers from deep internal divisions and a complex political operation is needed to unify the different factions: a radical pro-interventionist wing and another social democratic one with electoral and territorial power.

Additionally, the harsh sanctions that strangle the government’s social programs, coalescing the patriotic forces and reinforcing the anti-imperialist narrative that has always accompanied Chavismo.

Furthermore, Chavismo is home to internal contradictions with the potential of rekindling its original project. The best example is the Admirable Campesino March, a mobilization that walked more than 400 kilometers in August 2018 in order to reach Caracas and issue demands regarding property over rural land and landlord repression – a struggle that Chávez led but has since his death been left by the wayside despite the intensification of the injustices in the Venezuelan countryside.

That march gave Chavismo the opportunity to rediscover itself as a humble and honest resistance movement with a social base very different from the ruling PSUV elites, who have become increasingly delegitimized by corruption. At present, the organized Chavista bases are waiting for the opposition tide to ebb in order to unveil a popular political agenda and try to put into practice the mantra of militant Chavismo: strike at the helm, as Chávez termed the necessary struggle against bureaucracy and inefficiency in his final major speech.

It’s also necessary to examine the leaders that have emerged within the ruling party and what impact they could have in the near future. One of them, Miranda State Governor Héctor Rodríguez, is rumoured to be the candidate in new presidential elections negotiated during Norway-mediated dialogue. The other is the governor of Carabobo State, Rafael Lacava, who still does not have a presidential profile, but has the characteristic of breaking with Chavismo’s form of governance and with many of its postulates. He could emerge as a right-wing or pragmatic option within Chavismo. Both leaders could fulfill the objective of refreshing Chavismo and preparing it for new scenarios, but above all they allow for a depersonalization of Venezuelan politics so that it stops being a simplistic question of Maduro staying or going.

Unlike other countries that produce hard-right alternatives to confront progressive leaders, in Venezuela everyone from the opposition candidates to the evangelicals ends up embracing the postulates of Chavismo and try to appropriate its political symbolism. The hardline anti-Chavista opposition has not been effective and the social democratic opposition leadership, which won 7.7 million votes in December 2015 before the mass migration, today cannot decide on an electoral path because it is immediately accused of being “Chavista’” by the former whose only solution is US military intervention.

At the end of the day, it would seem that Chavismo will continue existing in Venezuela. Despite its decline, it has options to renew and reposition itself in the face of a new pogressive cycle that could emerge in the region. It could also continue to fade in the event that the current leadership elects to maintain itself in power indefinitely.

Chavismo will be an important movement for the foreseeable future in Venezuela, come what may, and it has a number of cards to play in different scenarios.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He is dedicated to analyzing Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is a co-founder of alternative Venezuelan state television station Avila TV in 2006. He is the recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI researcher prize and the Britto Garcia literature award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.