After a Charismatic Leader, What?

Commentary No. 349, Mar. 15, 2013

Pres. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has died. The world press and the Internet have been swamped with assessments of his achievements, ranging from endless praise to endless denunciation, with a certain number of persons expressing somewhat more guarded or limited degree of praise or denunciation. The one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that Hugo Chavez was a charismatic leader.

What is a charismatic leader? It is someone who has a very forceful personality, a relatively clear political vision, and capable of great energy and persistence in pursuing this vision. Charismatic leaders attract great support, first of all in their own country. At the same time, the very features of their persona that attract support are the same that mobilize deep opposition to their politics. All this has surely been true in the case of Chavez.

The list of charismatic leaders over the history of the modern world is not that long. Think Napoleon and De Gaulle in France, Lincoln and F.D. Roosevelt in the United States, Peter the Great and Lenin in Russia, Gandhi in India, Mao Zedong in China, Mandela in South Africa. And of course Simon Bolívar. As soon as one looks at a list like this, one realizes several things. These persons were all controversial leaders during their lives. The evaluation of their merits and faults has constantly shifted over historical time. They never seem to disappear from historical view. And lastly, they were not at all identical in their politics.

The death of a charismatic leader always creates a void of uncertainty, in which his supporters try to ensure the continuance of his policies by institutionalizing them. Max Weber called this the “routinization of charisma.” But once routinized, the policies evolve in directions that are always hard to predict. To estimate what may happen in the immediate future, one has to start of course with an appreciation of Chavez’s achievements. But one also needs to make an assessment both of the internal rapport de forces and of the larger geopolitical and cultural contexts in which Venezuela and Latin America find themselves today.

His achievements seem clear. He used the enormous oil wealth of Venezuela to improve significantly the living conditions of the poorest strata of Venezuela, expanding their access to health facilities and education, and thereby reducing the gap between rich and poor quite remarkably. In addition, he used the enormous oil wealth to subsidize oil exports to a large number of countries, especially in the Caribbean, which has enabled them to survive minimally.

Furthermore, he contributed substantially to building autonomous Latin American institutions – not only ALBA (the alliance of Bolivarian countries) but UNASUR (the confederation of all states in South America), CELAC (all states in the Americas except the United States and Canada), and Mercosur (the confederal economic structure that included both Brazil and Argentina), which he joined. He was not alone in these efforts, but he played a particularly dynamic role. It was a role for which former President Lula of Brazil constantly praised him. The very large number of presidents of other countries at his funeral (some 34), especially from Latin America, attest to their appreciation. In seeking to create strong Latin American structures, he was of course playing an anti-imperialist role, essentially an anti-United States role, and he was therefore not at all appreciated in Washington.

One should note in particular the positive appreciation of Chavez by the conservative president of neighboring Colombia. This was because of the important and very positive role Chavez had been playing as a mediator between the Colombian government and its long-time guerilla movement enemy, the FARC. Chavez was the one possible mediator acceptable to both sides, and he was seeking a political solution to end the warfare.

His detractors charged him with fostering a corrupt regime, an authoritarian regime, and an economically incompetent regime. There has no doubt been corruption. There always is in any regime where there is abundant money. But when I think of the corruption scandals in the past half-century in the United States or France or Germany, where there is even more money, I cannot take this argument too seriously.

Has the regime been authoritarian? Certainly. This is what one gets with a charismatic leader. But again, as authoritarian leaders go, Chavez has been remarkably restrained. There have not been bloody purges or concentration camps. Instead, there have been elections, which most outside observers have considered as good as they come (think again of the United States or Italy or…), and Chavez has won 14 of 15 of them. Nor should we forget that he confronted a serious coup attempt supported by the United States, which he survived with difficulty. He survived on the basis of popular support and support within the army.

As for economic incompetence, yes he has made mistakes. And yes, the current income of the Venezuelan government is less than it had been earlier. But remember we are in a worldwide depression. And almost every government in the world is facing financial dilemmas and calls to austerity. It is not at all obvious that a government in the hands of his opposition would have done better in terms of optimizing economic revenue. What is certain is that a government in the hands of his opposition would have done less to redistribute wealth internally to the poorest strata.

The one area in which he has not shone is his continuing support for an extractivist economic policy, overriding the protests of indigenous peoples about both ecological damage and their rights to autonomous control of their locations. But he shared this fault with every single government in the Americas, whether of the left or the right.

What is likely to happen now? For the moment, both the Chavistas and the opposition have closed ranks, at least for the forthcoming presidential elections. Most analysts seem to agree that Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, will win them. The interesting question is what will happen thereafter, first of all in terms of internal alignments. Neither camp is without its internal divisions. I suspect there will be some reshuffling of the cards, with defections in each camp to the other side. In a few years’ time, we may have a different array of forces.

What will then happen to “21st-century socialism” – the vision that Chavez had of what needs to be pursued in Venezuela, in Latin America, and throughout the world? There are two words in this vision. One is “socialism.” Chavez sought to rescue this term from the opprobrium into which it had fallen because of the multiple failures both of real-existing Communism and post-Marxian social-democracy. The other term is “21st-century.” This was Chavez’s clear repudiation of the socialism of both the Third and the Second Internationals, and his call for rethinking the strategy.

In both these tasks, Chavez was scarcely alone. But he sounded a clarion call. For me, this effort is part of the larger task we all face during this structural crisis of historical capitalism and the bifurcation of two possible resolutions of the chaos into which our world-system has fallen. We need to debate what is the nature of the better world we, or some of us, are seeking. If we can’t be clearer on what we want, we are not likely to win the battle with those who seek to create a non-capitalist system that nonetheless reproduces the worst features of capitalism: hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization.