The death of Venezuela's president raises the question of his place in the labyrinth of Latin American populism, say Fabián Bosoer & Federico Finchelstein
The body of Hugo Chávez was laid to rest in a military museum in Caracas on 15 March 2013, ten days after his death. The plan to embalm it to ensure that the former Venezuelan president would be “eternally” rooted in the city's museum of the revolution had receded, reportedly after advice from Russian experts about the condition of the corpse. In announcing this peculiar political ritual, Chávez's nominated successor Nicolás Maduro invoked the precedents of Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong. In the event, Chávez's physical form will not be enshrined in immortality; but every effort will be made to sustain his political legacy for many years to come.
What, though, will that legacy be? The regime desires to present the departed leader as a revolutionary figure of historic proportions. In this respect, it is notable that Maduro's tracing of a Marxist and Asian-European lineage omitted the Latin American genealogy of chavismo - and especially the case of Eva Perón, whose corpse was also embalmed when she died in 1952, at the high-tide of Peronism. Eva’s body later became the site of bitter political disputes, which reflected the extreme political antagonisms in cold-war Argentina. The resulting mix of authoritarianism and instability in the country lasted until 1983 and the coming of democracy to the country. Perhaps, then, both Maduro's highlighting of Asian-European examples and his neglect of this Latin American one offer a key to understanding the range of possible near futures in Venezuela and the region.
In particular, the death of Chávez opens up many questions regarding the future of the new type of populism that he represented, and the succession difficulties that this form of leadership engenders. His version of Latin America's "21st-century populism” combines an authoritarian conception of democracy with a high degree of social mobilisation and political participation. It conflates two seemingly contradictory notions: high-intensity electoral delegation yet low regard for citizen involvement in the more important government decisions. And it combines the opening of new channels for previously marginalised social groups with censorship of the press, and more generally an irritation with political dissent.
These political characteristics allow the regime to present the opposition as anti-patriotic, against "the interest of the nation". At the same time, this non-pluralist form of nationalism in domestic politics works in tandem with a strong Latin American regionalism whose impulse is rooted in the essentialist notion of the "patria grande" - a single, original Latin American nation. The new populism that Chávez symbolised takes elements from the socialist tradition, but its revolutionary rhetoric is also embedded in conservative strands (or in the Argentine case, local Peronist traditions) associated with caudillismo.
The leadership style of this new Latin American populism encourages the sense that the head of state is almost infallible, with his every activity and pronouncement covered in the media and his deep connection to the fluctuations of public sentiment assumed. He symbolises the very essence of the nation, in a quasi-monarchic hyper-presidentialism that is nonetheless presented as a “revolutionary model”. But the leader, unlike the nation, one day dies, and when this happens the potential fragility of this kind of political system - so much dependent on one figure - is suddenly revealed.
What will become of chavismo without Chávez? What will happen to its novel form of government? What will remain of either its progressive or its reactionary elements? The future alone can tell, but present choices are clear. If the model remains the same, Venezuela will continue its drive towards social inclusion coupled with further social disciplining, press censorship and more repressive structures in the party and the military, against the background of a dubious economic policy. In this event, the contest to succeed the departed comandante will be between those proposing various chavista ideas on how to ensure that populist rule continues.
A choice of three
But if change in the model becomes possible after the conclusion of its “foundational” phase, a choice could emerge between three forms of populist ”transition”.
The first would be along the lines of Nicaragua's post-Sandinista transition, when even after electoral defeat the state structures remained under the control of the party. That would mean the chavista party (PSUV) and the armed forces maintaining a strong presence in the political process, alongside a higher level of intra-party competition that opens the possibility of alternation in office.
The second would resemble the Cuban scenario, a controlled transference of charisma while retaining the notion (increasingly vague) that the existing set of institutions is revolutionary.
The third would be similar to the Argentine case after the death of Néstor Kirchner and the re-election as president of his widow Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This transition, like Cuba's, put the leading family as the key link in the chain of mobilising myths. Maduro, as a metaphorical relative of the late leader, would then use his impersonation of the comandante’s political mannerisms to try to portray himself as the inheritor of Chavez’ charismatic powers (a dauphin figure, contrasting with Mrs Kirchner’s powerful use of the image of the grieving widow constantly dressed in black).
All these models are rooted in a mythical rather than an institutional form of politics. In this way, the example of Peronism might yet be visible in the Venezuelan succession. Néstor Kirchner and Hugo Chávez belonged to the tradition of politics inaugurated by Juan and Eva Peron, including in their all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us approach on the national and international stage. But where the Perons viewed themselves as leaders of Latin America, the Kirchners accepted that they shared regional leadership with the Venezuelan caudillo. Now, perhaps, Cristina Kirchner might want to take on this leading role - though it is far from clear that Maduro, the Castros, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa would concede this, not least as Argentina would be unable to subsidise their countries as Venezuela under Chávez did.
If Argentina's experience proves to be an indicator for Venezuela's future, this would make unthinkable a role for the Venezuelan military in party politics. For notwithstanding Argentina's history of human-rights violations and military dictatorship, it is overall a secular modern society which in recent times has developed strong criticism of authoritarian tendencies. Chávez’s own participation in a coup was not especially valued in Argentina.
Yet, while Venezuela may be approaching a Peronist type of succession, Argentina is displaying some chavista tendencies of its own, especially in its international relations (such as a problematic agreement with Iran). The Argentine president may soon find that the country's civil society will electorally resist its more polarising populist drives, even as Nicolás Maduro (assuming he wins Venezuela's presidential election on 14 April 2013) will have to face the simple truth that he is not Chávez. A myth does not make difficult decisions. It will be hard for the new leader to acquire the mythical stature of the old, and it remains to be seen whether Chávez in his tomb will be politically vulnerable to the body-snatching that marked Evita's afterlife.