The March 5 announcement of President Hugo Chávez’s death marks a new chapter for Venezuela, as its population reflects on the legacy of the polarizing leader and its own future. As a result of his social programs, his political inclusion of the poor, and his assertions of Latin American independence from “imperialist powers,” Chávez gained the unwavering loyalty of millions of Venezuelans. Yet his bold, unique governing style came at the cost of the rights of his political opponents while fostering crime, corruption, and stifling government inefficiency.
Pivot to the Poor
When he assumed the presidency in 1998, Hugo Chávez launched his so-called “Revolución bolivariana,” making sweeping changes to the cultural, social, and political norms of Venezuela. These changes began with his attention to Venezuela’s lower classes. Under Chávez, Venezuela expanded low-income housing, made healthcare and medicine accessible to much of the population, and subsidized food distribution for those in need. These programs, especially in rural areas, made social services and government jobs available to large swaths of the population, resulting in a drop in the poverty rate from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent in 2011. The infant mortality rate also declined while literacy rates and access to free public education increased, according to data aggregated by Index Mundi. As Harvard professor Steve Levitsky explained to the HPR, “Chávez took social policies seriously. Even with cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency, he implemented policies that truly helped the poor.”
Chávez funded these ambitious and far-reaching social programs largely using oil revenues. Venezuela has the world’s largest estimated oil reserves, an apparent blessing that has made oil the nation’s main export. When he took office, Chávez nationalized privately owned oil fields under PDVSA, the state-owned oil and natural gas company. This gave the Venezuelan government direct access to oil profits, which increased dramatically during Chávez’s rule from just under $10 per barrel in 1999 to a peak of $126 per barrel in 2008. Prices now stand at just over $80 per barrel.
Finally, the largest and most long-lasting success of the Chávez regime was his political inclusion of the poor, due to their new sense of empowerment from his other policies. Cynthia Arnson, director of The Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, noted that Chávez had a positive legacy of “social inclusion and of empowering people not only in economic terms, but also in terms of political participation at a grassroots level.” This created a deep sense of loyalty and personal attachment to Chávez for many Venezuelans, seen in his 27-point margin of victory in the 2006 presidential election. These feelings were bolstered by Chávez’s strong assertions of Latin American solidarity against capitalism and Western powers. He created coalitions with fellow Latin American states in pursuit of regional unity, actions that earned Venezuela regional allies in leftist nations such as Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, and international allies like Iran and Syria.
Unsustainable Economic Policies
Though Chávez’s social programs benefitted many poor Venezuelans, his policies came at a high economic and social cost that has laid the foundation for present and future economic challenges. Under Chávez, corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement grew significantly. Chávez oversaw a decrease in oil production from 3.3 million barrels produced per day when he took power in 1998, to 2.4 million barrels per day in 2012. The effects of this decline have yet to be felt because of a corresponding increase in prices, but they may manifest themselves before long. According to MercoPress, oil accounts for over one third of Venezuela’s GDP, half of government revenues, and 90 percent of its exports. Ricardo Hausmann of the Kennedy School and former Venezuelan Minister of Planning criticized Chávez for remaining complacent despite Venezuela’s valuable resources. “The good hand that Chávez was dealt—the high price of oil—was not used to create a stronger country or a stronger society … he threw it away with a set of policies that will prove unsustainable,” he told the HPR.
Chávez’s socialist policies also hurt Venezuela’s productive capabilities by alienating business interests in the country. Venezuela was listed number 180 out of 185 countries on the World Bank’s list of “Ease of Doing Business” economies, a result of its socialist polices. In addition to these difficulties, Venezuela ended 2012 with an annual inflation rate of 20.1 percent. In the flourishing currency black market, a dollar is valued at 16 bolivars, contrasted with the official rate of 4.3 bolivars to the dollar. Venezuela’s only reliable export in the face of these circumstances is oil.
In addition to these economic challenges, the country’s security has also taken a hit. More civilians were killed in Venezuela from 2003 to 2011 than in Iraq during the same period of time, making Caracas more deadly than Baghdad. “Astronomical levels of crime and violence make Venezuela the most dangerous country in South America in terms of homicide,” according to Arnson.
Politicization of Civil Society
Ultimately, Chávez’s tendency to polarize the population by demonizing his opponents will define his legacy. The division of society into his supporters and opposition frame many of his policies: Chávez characterized himself as Venezuela’s protector from imperialist, capitalist enemies who had lackeys in the domestic political opposition. As Hausmann states, “One of the worst aspects of Chávez’s legacy is that he created a set of myths based on the idea that the U.S. is trying to take over Venezuela and steal its oil.” Chávez often referred to his political opponents as “fascists,” “little Yankees,” and “good-for-nothings” in his political campaigns, intensifying the schism between his supporters and opponents and prompting similarly vitriolic claims against Chávez from the opposition.
Chávez also dramatically altered the constitutional and democratic traditions in Venezuela. He oversaw the rewriting of the Venezuelan Constitution when he took power in 1999, which allowed for greater protections for indigenous peoples and women and established rights to education, housing, healthcare, and food while increasing the powers of the president and the military. In 2009, Chávez launched a public referendum to eliminate term limits for all public offices, including the presidency, allowing himself to run for president indefinitely. Arnson confirmed the opposition’s qualms about these reforms, stating that one of Chávez’s primary legacies is “of sharp polarization within Venezuela, and a weakening if not destruction of the institutions of representative democracy.” Chávez’s increased powers allowed him to respond to his opponents with the full force of the government and its resources, and in prominent cases, Chávez and his government used corruption charges and arrests as tools to subdue the opposition.
Unjustifiable Means to a Socialist End
“La Revolución bolivariana” had lofty and even some admirable social and egalitarian goals that were partially met. Yet those very policies had lasting consequences that excluded Chávez’s opponents and hurt the country and economy in the long term. The oil-driven economy that funded these programs is unsustainable and will pose serious challenges to future governments. The Venezuelan state is bloated, inefficient, and full of Chávez’s family and friends. Social services like housing, healthcare, medicine, and public jobs are only available to those who support Chávez and his government, and his opponents are demonized in the media and denied their democratic rights to free speech. Ultimately, this politicized, polarized version of Venezuelan civil society will scar the country long into its future.