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With Hugo Chávez Dead, What Now?

CAS prof ponders Venezuela’s future

When he died last Tuesday of cancer at age 58, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez left a bitterly divided nation with an uncertain future. During his 14-year rule, the feisty, colorful friend to Cuba was a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States, mocking its leadership and courting its enemies even as Venezuela became America’s fourth-largest oil supplier. Surviving several close elections and an attempted coup, Chávez used his nation’s wealth to lavish money on social programs for the poor. On Friday, throngs of his constituents gathered to weep in the streets and world leaders arrived for his state funeral, after which Vice President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in as acting president.

The nation’s future now hinges in large part on the interpretation of a constitutional mandate for a democratic election of Chávez’s successor, and whether Maduro will be permitted to run.

BU Today asked Renata Keller, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and an expert on Latin American history and relations with the United States, to comment on Chávez’s legacy and speculate on the future of his oil-rich, yet economically divided and increasingly unstable nation.

BU Today: What is the immediate impact of Chávez’s death on the Venezuelan people?
Renata Keller, professor of international relations, Boston University BU College of Arts and Sciences CAS

Renata Keller, a CAS professor of international relations, believes the death of Hugo Chávez has left Venezuela in a state of “deep uncertainty.” Photo courtesy of Keller

Keller: Chávez’s death has thrown his nation into a period of immense uncertainty. After the official announcement came, Venezuela’s foreign minister stated in a televised interview that Vice President Nicolás Maduro will assume the presidency and be in charge until a new election is held. However, the government has yet to provide many specifics about scheduling the new elections, and clashing interpretations of the constitution could derail efforts to conduct a seamless transfer of power from Chávez to Maduro.

The New York Times described Venezuela as bitterly divided. What are the nation’s divisions?

Chávez did not create the divisions in Venezuelan society, but he did exacerbate them. He was incredibly popular among the poor population that he championed. During his 14 years in power, the levels of poverty and unemployment in the country saw a steady and impressive decline. Chávez redirected much of his nation’s budget to social spending in crucial areas such as health, housing, and education. Thousands of people attended his funeral procession on Wednesday morning, mourning the loss of a leader who fought against the long tradition of inequality in Venezuela and across Latin America.

At the same time, Chávez also acquired numerous opponents at home and abroad. His critics have denounced his authoritarian methods and inflammatory rhetoric. They point to the significant increase in violent crime and homicides under Chávez’s watch, his uneven economic record, inflation, and shortages, and his ties to undemocratic leaders in Libya, Syria, and Iran.

Is Acting President Maduro the likely successor to Chávez? What kind of leader would he be?

While I would hesitate to assume that Maduro’s succession is a sure thing, I think it is likely, especially if he manages to capitalize on the outpouring of grief for Chávez. Up until recently, most observers described Maduro as a more pragmatic, reserved leader who favored negotiation over confrontation. However, he seems to be adopting some of Chávez’s style and tactics of late, and I suspect that he will continue to do so at least until his own power is consolidated.

What is Chávez’s chief legacy, in his own nation and beyond?

I think his chief legacy within Venezuela is his empowerment of the nation’s poorest citizens. Beyond that, Chávez was in the vanguard of the “Pink Tide” of leftist Latin American leaders that has swept the hemisphere in the last two decades. Many leftist leaders, from Lula in Brazil to the Castros in Cuba, owe Chávez a great deal, both economically and politically.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the constitutional procedure for an election; is one likely to take place within the required month?

The constitution requires that an election be organized, though not necessarily held, within 30 days. I expect that Maduro will want to hold the election as soon as possible in order to capitalize upon the sympathy factor.

With the gap between rich and poor growing, and unrest brewing in the weeks leading up to Chávez’s death, is it possible the country will descend into violence?

Well, one could argue that the skyrocketing homicide rate over the past few years suggests that Venezuela has already, as you put it, descended into violence. As to the likelihood of outright civil war or the declaration of a state of emergency, I would not rule them out, but I think they are unlikely. I suspect that as long as the government observes plausibly constitutional procedures, the opposition will refrain from staging an armed rebellion.

Aside from Cuba, who were Chávez’s allies in Latin America? Is the interim government likely to face pressure from neighboring democracies and the United States to shift to the center?

Aside from the Castros, Chávez’s allies in Latin America included Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, (Luis Inacio) Lula (da Silva) in Brazil, and the Kirchners in Argentina. While it is very likely that the United States and other countries will try to pressure, or encourage, the interim government to shift to the center, I doubt that any efforts along those lines will succeed, at least in the short term. The memory of Chávez is still too strong.

In what ways, if any, did Venezuela become more democratic under Chavez?

New York University historian Greg Grandin makes a compelling argument in his piece for The Nation that Venezuela has become significantly more democratic under 14 years of Chávez. Grandin points out that Chávez submitted himself and his agenda to 14 national votes in elections that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter praised as “the best in the world.” Furthermore, popular participation in politics increased dramatically under Chávez through grassroots organizations, social movements, and other forms of activism.

17 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

17 Comments on With Hugo Chávez Dead, What Now?

  • anonymous on 03.11.2013 at 8:21 am

    Thank you, BU Today and Renata Keller. These are definitely interesting times for Venezuela and for international relations in the Americas. While on some level Chavez performed his presidency with demagoguery and theatrics, he also helped his country immensely by redefining its destiny and history, and by taking back its natural resource wealth. He also presided over one of the first instances where a country told the US to get out of its backyard and wasn’t subsequently invaded.

    • anonymous also on 03.11.2013 at 9:19 am

      He put the Country in the map. Whoever could get out ,did.

      • tricia suar on 03.11.2013 at 6:32 pm

        Sure, he put the country on the map, but for negative reasons. Everyone knows Chavez as the president who challenged and mocked Bush and America, but no one truly knows the damage he did to his own nation. Since his reign, people in Venezuela have been suffering with extreme, unnecessary violence and unstable conditions when in comes to safety for the individuals and their families. The only reason one would say that Chavez redefined Venezuela’s history is because they are unaware of all the conditions that declined while he was in power. He might have redefined his nation’s history, but surely in a negative, detrimental aspect.

  • Anon on 03.11.2013 at 10:52 am

    Thank you Dr. Keller for giving a balanced and interesting perspective on Chavez. Many times students who don’t know a lot about Latin America will only hear the opinions of students who have left their country to study at BU, and sometimes their perspectives reflect their experiences and beliefs but don’t give light to the thoughts of poor people who could never afford to get that sort of education. Good read.

  • Gradstudent13 on 03.11.2013 at 3:17 pm

    Good article Renata. I’m Venezuelan born and moved here in my teens. I left many relatives in Ven, and watched their successful middle class lives go south under Chavez. My aunt was the owner of an electronics store one week and driving a taxi the next. They claim Chavez’s focus on social programs and directing oil production wealth to the poor was huge in the media and relatively small in actuality. They tell me he was “all talk, no substance”.

    With an enormous lower class that tends to vote with their hearts vice their brains, most Venezuelans are feeling a state of mixed feelings. They are hopeful that a new administration can re-establish foreign relations with countries not necessarily associated with “the axis of evil”, but they also fear the return of the Carlos Andres Perez-type presidents that cleaned out their coffers with ridiculously extravagant lifestyles.

    We are watching with anticipation and hope the Venezuelan people get it right.

    • Gradstudent13 on 03.11.2013 at 3:20 pm

      My apologies, I meant to compliment Susan on the article, not Renata.

  • chris on 03.11.2013 at 4:10 pm

    I think this is a very misleading article about Chavez and his impact on Venezuelan society. During his tenure Mr. Chavez destroyed the Venezuelan economy and created an unsustainable welfare society. The tension between those with and without money in Venezuela is such that it is actually dangerous to travel in the country. There are regular shortages of all imported good. Oil production has dropped by 35% since he came to power. Inflation is out of control….etc I think its great that so many North Americans want to believe in a champion for the poor but unfortunately he destroyed the country. His successor inherits this mess and as a result the Chavista movement will only outlive its founder by a couple years.

  • anonymous on 03.11.2013 at 4:12 pm

    So much for Social healthcare. Even the president of Venezuela couldn’t survive.

  • anonymous on 03.11.2013 at 5:29 pm

    His death was actually in december and the government has been hiding it the past few months. People, open your eyes. The media has been blinding the truth over there and you can’t trust there will be a fair election especially since Maduro has been in power for months. It’s sickening to see people crying because they voted for him just so they can have a plate of food. Meanwhile crime has gone up substantially and Caracas has become more dangerous than when I spent my childhood there. My family didn’t want to leave tjhecountry. Now they can’t even get a visa to visit without having a substantial amount of money much less reside somewhere else. What a mess. What a shame. Tragic sstoryin Venezuela

    • anonymous on 03.11.2013 at 5:29 pm

      Tragic story in venezuela

  • Luke Weyland on 03.11.2013 at 9:53 pm

    At the funeral a river, sea, an ocean of red shirted people mourned for El Comandante Hugo Chavez. Their banners red “We are all Chavez”.

    Chavez lives on in the hearts of the Venezuelan people. What Chavez called 21st Century Socialism is alive and well, not only in Caracas not only in Venezuela, but across Latin America, Southern Europe and the Middle East.

  • Patricia on 03.12.2013 at 8:38 am

    My brother has lived in Caracas for the past 33 years – as a musician, not a rich businessman – and seen the terrible decline in Venezuela’s society, economy, and democracy. He has repeatedly said that Americans just don’t get how bad and thuggish Chavez is/was. Chavez ripped up the constitution,packed the courts and assembly and businesses (i.e., oil) with his cronies. The country is bankrupt and on the verge of civil unrest. Thanks, Chavez.

  • Mario H. Casuga on 03.12.2013 at 9:36 pm

    To millions of Venezuelans, Chavez was an iconic statesman; yet, I revile him for branding our beloved President (George W. Bush) a snake. But, whatever our political orientations, pro-socialist or democracy-focused, the best judge of his legacy as a leader and a human being is history.

  • Dave on 04.03.2013 at 6:07 pm

    Lavish is not a word that mixes well in the same sentence as poor.

  • luke Weyland on 04.11.2013 at 10:22 am

    Chavez shared the same goals as Simon Bolivar. A just free fair, democratic and equitable United States of Latin America. Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution thus predates Chavez, and shall live on long after all of us currently living, have passed away.

  • Ryan on 04.19.2013 at 10:52 pm

    I don’t understand how anyone can think that a country taking care of its poor is bad. America says in God we trust, but they do the exact opposite. You think God wants the poor to die, just because of where they are born?
    Capitalism is killing democracy all over the world. The Top 1 percent control our markets for their own benefit,
    Anyone who doesn’t see this is very poorly informed. Do your research people of America, the majority of you are not getting the whole story. Don’t believe a lot of what you see in the news, it’s meant to mislead you!
    If we don’t do something to change the state of the world, there won’t be one for our future generations!
    We owe it them to educate ourselves on what is really happening in the world around us. We need to make the necessary changes to improve life for all people and not just the ones on top. You think the billionaires of the world care about the future of your children? If so their plan is working, good luck with that!

    • dionomite on 06.16.2013 at 1:57 pm

      TRUTH- only they are trillionaires since the VIETNAM fundraising

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