With the announcement that he must undergo a further round of urgent cancer surgery in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has once again forced many of his supporters to begin a conversation many would rather avoid: what will a post-Chávez Venezuela look like?
But while Chávez has played a predominant role in Venezuelan politics for more than 14 years, answering this question requires us to look to Venezuela before Chávez.
Those historically at the bottom of Venezuelan society are more organized, more conscious, and more rebellious than ever before
Long before Chávez was elected, the movements that would eventually bring him to power were struggling, as they had for decades, against an exclusionary two-party system that became more violent and corrupt as time wore on.
When Carlos Andrés Pérez ran a bait-and-switch electoral campaign in 1988, promising to resist the IMF austerity measures known as the Washington Consensus only to immediately implement these in early 1989, a breaking point was reached.
Venezuelans rebelled, rioted, looted, and burned for nearly a week. It was this rebellion, known as the Caracazo, that prompted Chávez to attempt a coup on Feb. 4 of 1992 with the support of the same popular movements, and it was this coup that eventually led to his election in 1998.
Since his election, Venezuela has been fundamentally transformed. Poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty by three-quarters, education and health care —once reserved for the wealthy— are now freely available to all Venezuelans. More important than these considerable improvements in social welfare, however, are the political transformations that have taken place in Venezuelan society.
When Chávez was elected, the infamous two-party system disintegrated, and Venezuela has slowly but surely become a more democratic place.
According to the Latinobarómetro poll, Venezuelans have more faith in democracy than any other country in Latin America: no small feat in a place where democracy was at one time equivalent to corruption.
With institutions like the communal councils, moreover, local institutions of directly democratic decision-making, Venezuela is attempting to combat the endemic corruption of a petro-state by decentralizing and rethinking power from below.
What does this all mean for Venezuela after Chávez?
Given recent history, in which sudden and unforeseeable ruptures have radically transformed what is possible, it would be a fool’s errand to make firm predictions.
By naming former foreign minister and current vice president Nicolás Maduro as his eventual successor, Chávez has made it clear that he values above all the stability of the Venezuelan revolutionary process. Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver, is known above all for his loyalty and moderation.
But as a successor to Chávez, Maduro raises as many questions as he provides answers: will he break toward more conservative elements of the Chavista movement (headed by Diosdado Cabello and his supporters in the military), or will he move left, for example by naming Elías Jaua (known for his radical past and relationship with social movements) as his vice president?
By simply naming a successor, however, Chávez has not guaranteed the continuity of the revolution.
While Chávez won re-election in October handily (by 11 percent), his margin of victory has decreased over the years, and it remains to be seen whether the notably uncharismatic Maduro will be able to galvanize the Venezuelan masses that have been the bedrock of Chávez’s support base.
If the anti-Chávez opposition, which is currently clamoring for an immediate election within 30 days, manages to win at the polls, what comes next is anyone’s guess, up to and including the possibility of a civil war.
But Chávez’s disappearance from Venezuelan politics will not remove the reason that put him there in the first place.
Those historically at the bottom of Venezuelan society are more organized, more conscious, and more rebellious than ever before, and any attempt to return to the past, to enforce neoliberal reforms and austerity measures, will be vigorously resisted.