The legacy of Hugo Chavez – A Caudillo’s handbook

Venezuela flag (Wikimedia Commons)

Venezuela flag (Wikimedia Commons)

Dear readers,

This article was submitted by one of you. It had nothing to do with Europe, but we found it interesting and worth publishing.


Seemingly indestructible, husky looking in the olive-colored uniform, Hugo Chavez had all the makings of a larger-than-life figure. For nearly 14 years, Chavez portrayed himself as this father figure presiding over every aspect of Venezuelan life. Charismatic and contentious, modern-day Robin Hood for some, shrewd autocrat for others, he was Latin America’s longest serving president – but at what cost? His life-long ambition of turning Venezuela into a socialist utopia may have run its course, but the bleak legacy of political and economic subordination will endure. 

Bearing the trappings of a man consumed by absolute power, Chavez’s death creates a dangerous precedent, aimed at ensuring continuity whilst fending off unwanted change. After all, no self-absorbed ruler likes having the system he so meticulously contrived undone after his physical demise. From smear campaigns to handouts, Chavez’s actions fall into place only to reveal his path to political success. There are rules for filling the power vacuum, tenets that every upstart will obey if he is to raise through the ranks. Just like other leaders in history who left a similar hole, Hugo Chavez wanted his ideology to live on.

His legacy unfolds to a step by step political gambit, a must-do for every aspiring caudillo:

Step 1: Achieve top leadership position. Become an elected autocrat

This wanna-be professional baseball player turned president, first started conspiring against the government at age 23. Years later, in 1992, Chavez led a bloody yet failed coup attempt against the democratically elected Carlos Perez. After a dishonorable discharge and a two-year jail sentence, he visited Cuba and began a close friendship with Fidel Castro. From the aging leader Chavez learned that being a military man through and through is not enough, that elections offer a better, less divisive route to power than force. Promising to do away with poverty and corruption, won him the presidency back in 1998.Tapping into the needs and frustration of the people offered him the means of creating legitimacy. No matter how contentious his actions were, he could always turn to the ballot box for approval.

Chavez went on the win three presidential elections, all marred by irregularities. As president, he would never shy from bypassing his legislative opponents and govern by decree. No independent institution was left unscathed. He appointed loyalist to the Supreme Court, while turning the Central Bank into an agent for off budget spendthrift. This so-called man of the people never conceded to the rigours of elected office. He not only kept strong ties with the army but ever expanded its power throughout his presidency. Behind Chavez’s military beef-up stood a genuine distrust in the acclaimed downtrodden. All along, he knew full well who to trust. Cautious enough never to display it and maybe stir up resentment amongst his destitute followers, Chavez owed his political survival to the faithful in uniform.

Step 2: Cripple all opposition

Tailored to his political ambitions, Chavez rewrote the Constitution as he saw fit. It was one of his first acts after winning office. Weakening checks and balances on the executive, legislating by decree, increasing his term to six years helped amass more power at the expense of the opposition. Over time Chavez sapped even further the system when, after an initial setback in 2007, managed to amend the supreme law once more, repealing term limits altogether.

Cowing the opposition became an end in itself. After having won a recall referendum in 2004, Chavez chastised those found backing the move. He purged media outlets, sacked state officials and even denied passports to whoever voted against him.

The benefits of incumbency turned out to be priceless later on. His dominance was nearly absolute. Chavez commanded the airwaves as he did state resources. He was on every TV station, at any time day or night, rambling for hours on end, while the opposition was only allowed three minutes of advertising a day.

As his influence grew, so did his intolerance towards all potential dissent. Whenever the opposition would do well in local and national elections, the president would find ways to strip regional bodies and the National Legislature of much of their powers. Everything Hugo Chavez did was intended to prop up support and hamstring anyone from challenging his authority.

Step 3: Develop a brand

One of the best known leaders in Latin America, Chavez owes much of his success to his personal charisma. He developed a brand, which is anti-American and anti-capitalist, a successor to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Apparently, if you call the President of the United States a sulfurous devil before the UN General Assembly, it helps your electoral prospects. Chavez used like no other Bush’s worldwide unpopularity to gain ground.  He never missed a chance to publicly scold the American President.

Chavez deployed his manipulative talents even further concocting scenarios to the effect that the U.S. was incessantly plotting to overthrow him. The United States came to be the external threat every autocrat desperately needs. It became the scapegoat for Venezuela’s economic woes and a source of legitimacy for the president’s charm offensive abroad.

Step 4: Manufacture dependency

What made Chavez such an astute politician was his understanding that staying in power requires creating dependency on a large scale. He nationalised cement factories, farms, steel mills, telecommunication providers and the oil industry. Government subsidies poured into sluggish sectors while the economy sank ever deeper into high inflation and low labour productivity. Chronic shortages of everything from oil to milk followed. And despite a boom in commodity prices, Venezuela saw Latin America’s lowest economic growth.

For creating this economic malaise and engineering his country’s collapse, Chavez was rewarded with a fresh electoral mandate. Our understanding here is that no matter how corrupt a system might be, there is only so much you can attain through electoral fraud and blackmail. The real trick behind all this is the corruption of the people. Chavez managed to make them not only economically dependent but also emotionally subdued. People voted for Chavez because he made them feel good about themselves. He mirrored their shortcomings, proving that the country’s president was as flawed as they are. By promoting mediocrities and displaying a thuggish behaviour Chavez showed his devotees that they too can someday follow in his footsteps. He never relented in fueling the conventional wisdom that Venezuela’s future depends on him.

Cristian Gherasim

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