The announcement by Hugo Chavez in early December that his cancer had returned and he had to go back to Cuba for further treatment provoked a political and constitutional crisis in Venezuela. For the Bolivarian forces, the jubilation that followed Chavez’s re-election as President in October has ebbed away and been replaced with uncertainty and despair. The Venezuelan Right, which had “warned” throughout the election campaign of the dangers of electing a man who was visibly ailing, are preparing themselves for the onset of the post-Chavez era. Some see the possibility of re-running the presidential election, hopeful that their defeated candidate, Henrique Caprilles Radonski, would fare better against Chavez’s successor.
The same can be said for officials in the US State Department, who, as the Washington Post recently reported, view the absence of Chavez as an opportunity to undertake ‘diplomatic initiatives’ to ease the tensions between Venezuela and the United States that have developed since Chavez first took office. Over Venezuela, the vultures now circle.
What, then, of Chavez’s supporters? It would be fair to say that their position at this stage is increasingly, albeit understandably, defensive. The announcement that Chavez would miss the swearing-in process each President much undergo before he or she embarks on a new term provoked hurried evocations of the Venezuelan Constitution, which allows for the ceremony to be postponed by the courts. Many Chavez supporters suspect that the Right, with the support of Washington, is looking to destabilise the country and generate a crisis that would undermine the legitimacy of the mandate Chavez secured in the elections.
The man Chavez has appointed as his successor – current vice-President Nicolás Maduro – is a former bus driver, trade union militant and an ally of the Bolivarian leader from the days of his failed military coup in 1992. Personal connections aside, Maduro is considered to be politically close to the President, favouring the line of regional integration and socialist development that so upset the Venezuelan oligarchy and American diplomats. That said, not even the most loyal supporter could claim he is in the same league as Chavez in terms of charisma or personal authority.
On one level it is a credit to the Chavistas that the President’s illness and absence has not generated a greater sense of panic. The government has, for the most part, managed to prevent the gossip and rumours emanating from the Right and the media from becoming completely debilitating. Much of the criticism of the Chavez phenomenon, particularly from those on the left otherwise sympathetic to the socialist and anti-imperialist goals of the government, has been that it is too “personalized”. Any movement, so the argument goes, reliant on the force of one man’s personality is bound to be unstable. This argument carries some weight, but it’s not the whole story.
In the regional elections held a week after Chavez announced the return of his cancer, his electoral vehicle, the PSUV, actually improved on the results it achieved in 2008, winning the governorships of 20 out of 23 states. Caprilles Radonski did however retain control of the Miranda region, despite the PSUV mounting a vigorous campaign headed up by former vice-President Elias Jaua, who stepped down from his post to stand against Caprilles.
One’s assessment of the likely impact of Chavez’s death or resignation depends on how the revolutionary process in Venezuela is perceived. If you see change as emanating mainly from ‘the top’, from the Miraflores Palace down, then Chavez’s illness threatens to end the Bolivarian Revolution. From this perspective, if Chavez fails to return, the forces of reaction within and without Venezuela will be emboldened and perhaps push socialism into retreat.
But believing such a retreat to be inevitable or likely relies on a mistaken view of how radical and revolutionary change takes place. While it would be ludicrous to deny the importance of Chavez to the creation of a mass radical, feminist and socialist movement in Venezuela, that movement is almost worthless if it is entirely dependent on Chavez. The reason for this is that the profound change the most radical elements of the movement promise – the construction of a society not dominated by the imperatives of capital accumulation – could never be achieved over the lifetime of any individual. If Chavismo was actually about changing the world it was always going to have to learn to live in a world without Chavez. The best way to preserve Chavismo at this point is to build solidarity with those prepared to move forward with or (more likely) without the man himself.