The Social Structure of Hugo Chávez

VenezuelaMost major news magazines have covered the dramatic processes of change—constitutional reforms, referenda, marches, protests, strikes, and a coup followed by a counter-coup—Venezuela has seen over the past 10 years. But instead of situating these transformations in broader social and historical contexts, the media usually explain these events by focusing on the personal characteristics of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

Journalists and scholars find explanations for his nationalist, populist, and anti-U.S. stances, and by extension all Venezuelan change, by looking at the impact of Chávez being raised by his grandmother, his military training, his early identification with leftist thought, his class resentment, a basic lust for power, old fashioned megalomania, or an unfolding plan to become a socialist dictator.

Chávez does make himself hard to ignore, but a focus on Chávez as a great man of history who has single-handedly revolutionized Venezuelan society (for better or for worse) seriously impedes our understanding of the social changes unfolding in Venezuela and the politics that grow out of them.

The past 10 years have seen anti-status quo leaders rising to power throughout Latin America. In each case such outsider leadership answers the population’s discontent with unresponsive democracies and hope for improved social and economic conditions. Understanding these political movements—and, more importantly, their prospects for the future—turns on much more than the personalities of their leaders.

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from representative to feckless democracy

The past ten years have seen anti-status quo leaders rising to power throughout Latin America. Most of these leaders, like Chávez, are on the left of the political spectrum—such as Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. However they can just as well be on the right, such as the highly popular Alvaro Uribe in Colombia. In each case such outsider leadership representing change responds to the population’s discontent with their countries limited democracies. Originally designed to ensure stability through elite control, these democracies stagnated and became dysfunctional in the 1980s and 90s.

Venezuela’s 40-year democratic regime ending in 1999 maximized stability through an extreme form of representative democracy. It limited citizen participation to elections in which they chose the parties who would then, in turn, choose the politicians that would represent the people. These parties were autocratic and hierarchical, and developed pacts and commissions through which elites and organized interests were guaranteed a disproportional voice in policy-making.

The most important factor in this regime’s legitimacy was the provision of economic well-being and promotion of societal development. Indeed using its vast oil wealth, the state was able to simultaneously attend not only to the accumulation demands of private capital, but to the consumption demands of the majority. Annual growth in the Gross Domestic Product averaged 5 percent from 1958 to 1980. According to government statistics, Immunization drives and health care development dramatically increased life expectancy, lowered infant mortality, and led to a threefold increase in population between 1950 and 1990. A country that was 50 percent rural and 50 percent illiterate in 1950 was almost 90 percent urban and 90 percent literate by 1990.

In effect, during this modern period Venezuela went from a poor, unhealthy, and uneducated population to a relatively prosperous, modern nation. Considering Venezuela maintained political and economic stability through a period in which democracies in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and a number of other Latin American countries broke down, the achievements of this model were remarkable.

But in the early 1980s Venezuela’s state-led modernity began to unravel. While a drop in oil prices and rising debt burden created a fiscal crisis the institutions of democracy had become ossified and leaders resisted needed change. The currency was first devalued in 1983, but successive governments postponed structural change as long as possible, until in 1989, when under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund a severe structural adjustment package was implemented. In 1996 another round of structural reforms were pushed through.

The economic figures are sobering. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the percentage of the government’s budget that went to paying interest on foreign debt steadily increased. The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reports that Venezuela’s per capita growth for the 1980s was -3.2 percent. In the 1990s it was -0.3 percent.

Despite this vertiginous downward spiral, it is important to note human development indicators measuring health, education, and consumption of information continued their upward march throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And as often happens, an increasingly literate, educated, and informed population increasingly demanded reform.

Indeed the stated intentions of the designers of the democratic regime were for it to transition toward increasing citizen participation as societal development progressed. Unsurprisingly, however, democratizing reforms by those with privileged positions of power were slow in coming and limited in scope. An effort to modify or write a new constitution, for example, was repeatedly offered as a campaign promise but never quite made it onto any sitting government’s agenda.

The two main parties—the social democratic party Democratic Action (in Spanish, AD) and the social Christian party the Independent Political Electoral Organizing Committee (in Spanish, COPEI)—responded to the challenge with lethargy. Looking inward, they resisted reform, sought to conserve their power, and in the process lost their ideological leadership. A continual flow of corruption scandals combined with recurring efforts at neoliberal reform engendered, among the populace, a not inaccurate image of professional politicians as focused on their own well being and unconcerned with the plight of the average citizen. Political scientists refer to his type of regime, characterized by free and fair elections but unresponsive parties and leaders, as “feckless democracy.” This feckless democracy set the stage for outsider leadership eventually leading to the populist government of Hugo Chávez.

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