Life after Chávez
Lawrence Alfred Powell, World Watch
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is currently in "delicate" condition in a Havana hospital, receiving intensive recuperative care after a fourth operation for cancer of the pelvic region. This most recent operation was complicated by a serious lung infection, which suggests his immune system may have been compromised by last year's radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Ironically, it was those treatments that made it possible for him to successfully campaign for, and win, another term as Venezuela's most popular modern leader. Now, he is too ill to attend his own inauguration.
Chávez's recovery is so precarious, in fact, that it has precipitated a national political fight over the constitutional status of his delayed inauguration. The ceremony was to take place January 10, but he could not attend owing to his continued illness. Opposition parties, arguing that the delay in Chávez's inauguration amounts to a constitutional "violation" and a "coup d'état", have called for massive national demonstrations in protest.
They are demanding that more information about Chávez's condition be released, and that an independent medical team be formed to determine whether he is fit to remain in office. They claim that a constitutional provision should take effect, which implies that since he failed to attend the swearing-in ceremony before the National Assembly in Caracas on January 10, elections must now be called within 30 days.
The pro-Chávez Venezuelan Supreme Court has since ruled that, under certain conditions, a delay in Chávez's swearing-in can be interpreted as being constitutional. The ruling means that Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will continue to run affairs on his behalf in the interim. However, the legal manoeuvring and political posturing continue, as does the uncertainty as to where Chávez's health crisis will lead Venezuela in coming months.
Though Chávez - a rugged former military officer - is known for his courage and physical resilience, everyone has his limits. So this latest bout with recurrent cancer has provoked anxiety among those who wish to preserve his populist legacy, as well as those countries in the region (including Jamaica) which are dependent on continued favourable PetroCaribe petroleum deals and other forms of mutual support.
Among his foes, there is an equal-and-opposite surge of hope among those who feel displaced by the Chávez-era Bolivarian revolution - those whose commercial oil and banking interests were nationalised, and those in the middle and upper classes whose former privileged existence has taken a back seat to development programmes for the poor, in the years since Chávez took office.
can 'chavismo' go on?
And, of course, the US government, with its longstanding colonial interests in the region, and corporate investors with an interest in reprivatising Venezuela's vast oil wealth, are similarly hoping that the demise of this charismatic populist leader could bring a return to a more favourable investment climate, and an end to redistributionist policies they see as unnecessarily stifling economic prosperity and freedom.
Can the tough, uncompromising Bolivarian legacy of 'chavismo' continue, without Chávez at the helm? Will it continue to inspire similar anti-imperialist movements in surrounding countries - as it has done so far in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, Bolivia?
A latent fear among his supporters - a concern few have been willing to acknowledge until now - is that the egalitarian social reforms he achieved, and the political machinery he constructed to implement them, were far too reliant on the charisma of just one political superstar. He kept too much of the limelight for himself over the past 14 years, with too little thought to matters of graceful succession within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and the party's grooming of equally charismatic, next-generation leaders who can continue the progressive Bolivarian legacy.
Moreover, the disinformation campaigns waged against Chávez and his country's courageous experiment in democratising distribution of its resources have been very intense. Given the constant barrage of mainstream Western media reports reinforcing a negative stereotype of Chávez as the next Saddam/Stalin/Mao/Hitler (add your most despised totalitarian demon here), it's little wonder that the remarkable accomplishments of this man for his people have become so obscured in the public mind.
But just consider for a moment what a rare legacy he has left. Most politicians leave office (or expire clutching it) with the majority of their constituents worse off, or at best roughly the same, as when they were elected. Compared to that, the accomplishments of the Chávez era are truly exceptional.
How often do we encounter national leaders who can honestly say that under their watch poverty levels were reduced by two-thirds (23.4 per cent in 1999 to 8.5 per cent in 2011)? How often do politicians succeed in reducing unemployment levels by half (from 14.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent)? And under Chávez's watch, infant mortality went from 20 to 13 per 1,000 births; millions of Venezuelans now have access to quality health care for the first time; university enrolments have doubled; and four times as many citizens are now eligible for public-pension assistance in old age.
Nor has this been accomplished by sacrificing economic vitality. The gross domestic product increased from US$4,100 per Venezuelan in 1999, to US$10,800 in 2011, along with an increase in national oil exports from US$14 to US$60 billion over the same period. In case you're wondering, all of the above figures come from United Nations, World Bank, and Centre for Economic and Policy Research studies, not from Venezuelan government sources.
The electoral process, too, has been thoroughly democratised from what it was before Chávez. In the past, up to 20 per cent of Venezuelans were typically left off the registration list, and ballot boxes were not accessible in the poorest areas that contain most of the country's population.
Now under Chávez, more than 96 per cent of Venezuelans are registered to vote, with access to polling stations made convenient for all segments of the population, including 1,500 special information booths set up throughout the country by the National Election Commission that offer voters a chance to familiarise themselves with the electronic voting machines in advance of an election.
The turnout in Venezuela's most recent election (2012) was about 81 per cent. Compare that, for example, with the US turnout in 2012, which was 58 per cent. International monitors such as the Organisation of American States and the European Union, in overseeing the Venezuelan elections since 1998, have repeatedly certified them as being free and fair. After monitoring the elections, former US President Jimmy Carter even remarked that in his opinion, the Venezuelan election process was "the best in the world".
And many scholars of comparative electoral processes now agree that - in terms of actual representation of popular will - the Venezuelan election system is more genuinely democratic than the US system. The electronic voting system is secure, transparent, and auditable. Multiple audits are carried out at each stage in the process, involving all political parties. And each citizen vote yields a tangible paper receipt, for verification or recount.
This is what the majority of Venezuelans, who have repeatedly re-elected him since 1998, are afraid they are about to lose. Jamaicans can certainly sympathise with those insecurities, because there is now the very real chance of losing the favourable PetroCaribe arrangements - if a contrary regime should seize power in the coming months through a destabilisation campaign that attempts to exploit the post-Chávez confusion.
Like all leaders, this man has been far from perfect. But viewed from the perspective of what most leaders do in office, most of the time, it seems reasonable to agree with what historians in the world's best universities are already concluding - that we are witnessing the passing of one of the world's most profound anti-colonial icons. And he will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to replace.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.