Reaping the Harvest of the Failure to Institutionalize: Venezuela and Chavez
Hugo Chavez has built a state on cronyism.
Business Week has an interesting piece on the current state of politics in Venezuela in the context of Hugo Chavez’s health problems and the pending presidential election: Chavez in Failing Health Turns to Generals to Defend Revolution.
The piece notes that Chavez, who has had several secretive surgeries for an undisclosed cancer over the last year or so, is moving past military allies into positions of power in what appears to be an attempt to ensure that loyalists are in key position. The problem for Venezuela (well, at least one of them) is that cronyism is no way to arrange viable governing structures. Further, the fact that after so many years in power that Chavez feels the need to turn to old friends and allies with links to his failed coup attempt in 1992 underscores how little institution building has been undertaken over the last decade plus. There is no party. There is no real plan for what comes next. There is just Chavez. The regime is fueled by a combination of Chavez’s charisma and, well, oil revenues (pun partially intended).
In regards to the charisma, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue (a policyoriented think tank that focuses on hemispheric issues) correctly noted in the piece: “Chavez can’t transfer his appeal and charisma to anyone else.”
Indeed. No Chavez, no chavismo. He is the Bolivarian Revolution and it seems that he has done nothing to fix that problem. Indeed, he had been acting like a man who thought he would live for several more decades and therefore would either a) deal with the lack of institutionalization later, or b) just let someone else deal with it later (much later). However, the cancer has changed the calculus. It should be noted that the issue is not just lack of an institutionalized party or organization, it is that chavismo isn’t a coherent philosophy nor is is based on an ideological model (or, really, any model at all). Rather, it is a vague and ad hoc set of notions that mix socialism, populism, nationalism, and whatever else Chavez wants to throw in at a given moment.
When a system of government is built largely around a particular figure, then that system tends to collapse when that figure leaves the stage. In other words: charisma and cronyism are poor materials from which to build stability and, indeed, are basically the opposite of institutionalization.
Such a situation also means that the charismatic leader is unlikely to leave power in an orderly fashion. Greg Weeks (a polisci professor and blogger) also was quoted in the piece:
“If he were to name somebody right now he’d be telling the world, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m going to die soon,'” said Weeks in a phone interview. “I see Chavez as pretending he’s healthy as long as he possibly can.”
As such, the likelihood of a regularized process of transition seems unlikely and that the mess of such a transition could come via a surprise and therefore foment a real crisis (i.e., if Chavez were to drop dead). Along those lines, Weeks noted that Chavez has had 7 vice presidents during his time in office (i.e., since 1999). That is not an approach that creates a smooth transition in case the president is no longer able to function in office. Indeed, it is more likely an attempt to avoid alternative centers of power to emerge.
There is no doubt that there will be substantial changes to governance in Venezuela once Chavez leaves the stage. However, the degree to which such a process is orderly or chaotic remains in question and the current situation is one that likely leans more to the chaos side (and one that is placing a great deal of power in the hands of military). There is also a real chance of serious internal power struggles as ill-defined centers of quasi-power seek to establish themselves in a post-Chavez circumstance. It does not bode well, at the moment, for the people of Venezuela.