CARACAS - When Hugo Chávez took office for the first time in February 1999, Venezuela was on the edge of an economic abyss due to the ravages caused by almost 40 years of corruption from traditional political parties. The reach of poverty touched almost 80 percent of the population.
This ticking social time bomb was what ultimately convinced President Rafael Caldera, in 1994, to release the then military paratrooper Chávez, who had been imprisoned for leading a failed coup in 1992 against Caldera's predecessor.
The heat of the inequality in Venezuela was reaching a boiling point, and as Chávez would later recognize, his release from prison would help cool the social fury and ultimately avoid a full-blown Marxist alternative.
At the time, Chávez was making an effort to differentiate his politics from the Cuban model and reassure his belief in the right of private property and democratic institutions. Thus, Chávez became the spokesperson for those misplaced from the structure of economic distribution. He elevated this part of society for the first time, putting the disadvantaged at the center of the table, in the national spotlight.
And, even though his regime did not successfully resolve some of the fundamental issues of development for this sector of society, Chávez should be credited for bringing the poor out of the shadows. This stands at the heart of the mystique that surrounded him, and he personally took pride in his attempted coup and considered any opponents who would dare defy him as squalid imposters.
Hugo Chávez became the liberator of the poor people of Venezuela. He managed to create a nationalist structure that pulled the masses in closer, stirring up an extraordinary and extravagant mixture of religion and Marxism, adoration of Jesus Christ and Simón Bolívar, the mythical revolutionary liberator of the region from the Spanish Empire who helped lay the foundations of democratic ideology in much of Latin America.
The Chavista model was built on a sort of hyper-presidentialism of absolutist dimensions. Hyper-presidentialism occurs when elected presidents try to take the law into their hands and ignore constitutional limits. Thus Chávez managed to dominate Congress and attack the judiciary.
Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution ignored institutions and used perpetuation of extreme power as his key to success. He distributed replicas of Simón Bolivar’s sword to all dictators in the world, notably to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, Belarusia's Alexander Lukashenko and the repressive leaders of Iran's theocracy.
Social good, stiffling freedom
In between, the Venezeulan President set out to destroy television channels and written press outlets that dared to criticize him, turning freedom of speech into one of the victims of his model.
Naturally, this self-exalting model created enemies. Through an electoral system that exchanged votes for favors, he was legitimized again and again in the voting booths. Through his assistance programs for the poor, funded by Venezeula's notable oil wealth, he reduced poverty levels. Under Chávez, many had access for the first time to basic health care and education.
But his formula had a fatal economic flaw: a huge gap remained between growth that came from oil resources and the absence of other real and sustainable areas of development in the country. During this period, while the price of crude oil from Venezuela jumped from less than $20 to more than $100 a barrel, the sector was never industrialized. As a result, the country could not break the dependency on some 80% of imported goods in the country.
The great udder of Venezuelan Oil (PDVSA), supported the system, but began to show problems before the leader’s death, due to a lack of investment and long-term projects.
Faced with difficulties, Chávez always launched himself head-first into the fray. He not only changed the Constitution, ignoring a plebiscite against him, but won by a substaintial victory in his 2012 reelection.
His death leaves a huge void in Venezuela. Most pressing is the budget, which requires a strong currency devaluation to alleviate the weight of public debt. But the void is ultimately structural, because the country requires a major shift in its investment strategy.
But the most important void of all is the political legacy left by the passing of an absolute leadership that cannot be handed down. And while the battle now begins to take Chávez's place, success will depend on how well Venezuela's next leaders are able to reconcile the national contradictions that are stronger than ever.