Hugo Chavez in 2012. Carlos Hernandez/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Juan Domingo Perón was so distrustful that when he ran for president in 1973, he reinforced his candidacy with his wife as vice president. Perón was unable to decide on his succession – “my sole heir is the people”, he used to say cunningly. When Perón died in July 1974, María Estela Martínez de Perón, known as Isabelita, became president of Argentina. Her government intensified the armed confrontation between the Peronist left and right and ushered in the military coup of 1976 and its policy of extermination. The chaos and fear were such that many Peronists expected that fatal blow.
Juan Domingo Perón was so distrustful that when he ran for president in 1973, he reinforced his candidacy with his wife as vice president.
Hugo Chávez was so distrustful that when he assumed the fact of his impending death, he appointed Nicolás Maduro as his successor. Three days after his passing, Maduro took over the leadership of both the state and the government as "president in charge of Venezuela". Then, on April 14, 2013, he won the elections and became constitutional president.
In Argentina, during Isabelita’s government, the creation of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A) boosted terror in the country. Three hundred dead between 1974 and 1975 attest it. In June 1975, a devaluation of the currency of 160% carried out by Finance Minister Celestino Rodrigo has gone down in history as the Rodrigazo. The rate of inflation was then over 700%. Perón had represented the return of democracy, the end of proscription and hope in a popular government. But it hastened violence by both leftist guerrillas and the military and right-wing paramilitaries. President Martínez, ill-equipped with her limited expertise, endured the tension of a polarized state, tilted the balance to the most reactionary sectors of her party, and mismanaged an economy in crisis, including the removal of the Finance Minister who had been building bridges between the business sectors and the trade unions. The president fired up further the traditional Peronist discourse on the people versus the anti-patriots.
Hugo Chávez was so distrustful that when he assumed the fact of his impending death, he appointed Nicolás Maduro as his successor.
It is a well known fact that Hugo Chávez took many ideas from Peronism, and that one of his main advisors was a controversial Peronist sociologist by the name of Norberto Ceresole. There are many points in common between the two in the political, the economic and the ideological fields. But there are also many differences: the international context, economic globalization, the capitalist restructuring of communist states and, at the national level, different economic structures, a different political party system and different social experiences in militancy.
Neither Perón in his old age nor Chávez in his illness were responsible, or generous enough to form their successors, to usher in young leaders, and to start a dialogue with the opposition in order to ensure social peace after their passing. On the contrary, the two actually seem to have asserted the absolutist claim: "after me, the abyss".
Maduro and Isabel could not carry on a process marked by authoritarian personalism. They tried to imitate their predecessors and be authoritarian, but they lacked their charisma. They followed the plan outlined by them, but were unable to adjust to changing regional and international scenarios. They proved their inability to govern with an inherited legitimacy.
Nicolás Maduro can no longer claim that it is the traditional bourgeoisie and the powers associated with imperialism which have destroyed the country. Like Perón's widow, the Venezuelan president does not seem to possess the tools and knowhow necessary to govern, especially in a critical scenario. He broke what was left of the institutional system. His term started with the wrong foot when, at his inauguration, it was Chávez’s daughter who handed him the presidential band. He has let outlaw gangs terrorize Venezuelan society. Isabel, due to her shortcomings and lack of authority, left Argentina with fratricidal violence and a military government responsible for the disappearance of some 30.000 people which sent young, inexperienced soldiers to die in the Falklands.
How are we to interpret these situations? Max Weber stressed the problem of the charismatic leader’s succession. How can you replace a political leader who has become, through his own discourse and thanks to the national and international context, the wielder of the truth and destiny of his people? Personalist leaders and power concentrators hardly ever prepare their successors. Their political parties do not function independently. Both Perón and Chávez formed political movements around them: the Justicialist, also known as Peronist Movement, and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Neither Perón nor Chávez thought about the political impact of their demise. Neither their parties nor their closest advisers were able to avoid the social conflicts brought about by their death. A charismatic leader can only be replaced in contexts where state institutions are solid and have not been undermined by the personality-centred exercise of power. In the Argentine case, the institutions were fragile, after years of military coups and weak democracy. Unlike Argentina, where General Perón did not have the support of the armed forces, in Venezuela the power of the institutions was emptied: the armed forces and the judiciary were loyal to Chávez, not to the democratic system, and the National Assembly delegated its power to the executive branch through the so-called enabling laws.
Nicolás Maduro can no longer claim that it is the traditional bourgeoisie and the powers associated with imperialism which have destroyed the country.
In both cases, the charismatic leader damaged democratic institutions, concentrated power, manipulated laws, and thus neutralized the political parties’ play. This is a type of leadership that disempowers the institutions and the opposition - which makes it all the more difficult to produce a successor and reinforces the feeling of abyss.
A third aspect of the legacy left by these personalist leaders is populism. In our region, populism has been predominant as a political representation mode and a form of leadership. Our democracies have had to endure the emergence of populist leaders who have polarized societies, impaired accountability and weakened the division of powers.
The combination of these elements and the concentration of power in their hands leave a terrible void when they die. Their charisma does not make them eternal.
When charismatic leaders die, they leave institutions of political mediation devastated. Their charisma is not transferred to their successors who, in addition, inherit all the errors of their predecessors without their ability to convince followers or appease opponents, as Perón and Chávez did with their rhetorical skills.
Emphasizing their similarities, however, does not prevent us from noting one crucial difference: while in Argentina Isabel was deposed by a bloody military coup, in Venezuela the military do not want changes. It is not that they refuse to run the state: they have taken all the power already.
When charismatic leaders die, they leave institutions of political mediation devastated.
This is no small difference, since the loyalty of the armed forces is the instrument of last resort which sustains Nicolás Maduro’s government. Not only does the Bolivarian National Armed Forces have the monopoly of state violence, they also control social aid (Sovereign Supplies Great Mission), the political management of the country and the running of state and private enterprises (in the processed food, pharmaceuticals and industrial sectors). The people’s militia completes the setup, as Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said: "Today, the Bolivarian militia is a strategic concept, a strategic weapon which not only represents the union of the people, the hinge between the people and the Armed Forces, but also the people in arms "(“Excelsior”, Mexico, May 26, 2017). It is difficult to think of reconciliation or reaching some political consensus while promoting the people in arms.
In the case of Argentina, there existed a political alternative to the government of Isabel, which is something that is nowhere to be seen in Venezuela. In both cases, the heirs to the charismatic leaders squandered their predecessors’ political capital and plunged their respective countries into violence. Argentina had to endure a military government that imposed state terrorism. The foreseeable future in Venezuela is, for now, uncertain. The only thing that is clear is that charismatic personalism entails severe risks. Chávez’s ultimate legacy, like Perón’s, is likely to be destroyed rapidly and violently.