By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations
The death of the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, means the loss of a popular leader and a political referent, not only for Venezuela but for Latin America. A charismatic leader, a controversial policy maker, a common citizen, a low-ranked military who challenged a long history of elite politics in Venezuela. Any discussion about his political style must recognise that the Bolivarian leader represented a turning point in Venezuelan’s history, and indeed in the Americas.
Chavez opened the chapter of Latin American post-neoliberalism. Since he took office in 1999, in the heyday of the Washington Consensus, he followed a pathway distinctively marked by the rejection of pro-elite democracy, an approach that was subsequently echoed across the region. There was nothing providential or prophetic in this mission but the need to repair a historic deficit of exclusionary political economies and complacent democracies. Socially, his most revolutionary mark was the use of the abundance of oil and its rising price to support an impressive series of Poverty Alleviation Programmes, especially in urban areas, beginning in the 1990s. These included the introduction of universal education and health care through what are termed de-centralized ‘missions’ (Misiones) that replaced state-led programmes. The programmes range from Misión Ribas (adult education) and Misión Sucre (university scholarships) to Misión Vuelvan Caras (economic cooperatives), Misión Guaicaipuro (indigenous land titling), Misión Barrio Adentro (community health), Misión Mercal (subsidized food markets) and Misión Milagro (eye operations, which provides free surgery in Cuba to Venezuelan and other Latin American citizens). The economic balance, however, is more nuanced. Chavez failed to break the country’s dependency on oil exports, particularly to a single-destination, the United States. Venezuela is still challenged by uneven growth, macroeconomic tensions (high inflation, fiscal deficit, a chaotic exchange market) and is built on a production structure more similar to Nigeria or Saudi Arabia than Argentina or Brazil. From a political standpoint, the complexities and the resilience of what became a plebiscitary democracy is still to be seen, and so is the capacity of the new leadership to strengthen the institutional aspects of social democracy in Venezuela.
Regionally, Chavez turned another important page in the history of integration. In 2005 he led the overwhelming rejection of the countries of the region to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) reclaiming the region under the ideas of Latin American political referents such as Bolivar, San Martin, Artigas, Martí and Che Guevara, advancing new initiatives and integration proposals such as ALBA, Telesur Petrocaribe, Bank of the South, UNASUR and CELAC. The theory and practice of these initiatives will be material for much future academic discussion, but undeniably the backbone of these initiatives is Chavez fervent and uncompromising struggle for autonomy and social justice in Latin America.