With Venezuelans just hearing the announcement of Nicólas Maduro as their new President, the choice made over Henrique Caprilles will resonate far beyond the confines of the South American country. Its former leader, Hugo Chávez, was one of the world’s most charismatic rulers and offered the world a different path to neo-liberal capitalism. It offered hope to left-wing enthusiasts that their ideals can succeed in practise. But what did Chávez’s Venezuela actually achieve and how long can it last?
Late into the night the drums beat, people sang and flags waved outside the Venezuelan embassy in Buenos Aires. Upwards of 1,000 people had gathered to make their voices heard on Venezuela’s second election night in less than six months.
The vast majority were left-wing worshippers of former Commandante Hugo Chávez, but few were from the homeland of their hero. There were Argentinians, Colombians, indigenous Bolivians and Uruguayans joining the ranks of the oil-rich nation. The multi-ethnic nature emphasising the importance of this election to Latin America.
“I’m here to show solidarity with the revolutionary process in Venezuela”, says Laura Soto (25) from Colombia. Speculating on a Caprillas victory, she says “Caprillas will bring Venezuela on a neo-liberal path, like in Colombia, Chile, even Peru. That would mean no participatory democracy”.
The winner, Nicólas Maduro, by an extremely tight margin of less than 2%, was the chosen successor of Chávez who died just six months after claiming yet another electoral victory during his 1998-2013 reign.
“There will be no transition. There will continue to be popular democracy in a social democratic country”, says the secretary of the Venezuelan Embassy in Buenos Aires, Juan Romero.
“The creation of a discussion of the relationship of politics across Latin America is the most important result of Chávez’s rule. It has resulted in a new way of thinking”, says Romero.
Its former leader remains an extremely divisive figure worldwide, where his reign points to clear successes and obvious failures
In 1999 when Hugo Chávez came to power the extreme poverty rate in Venezuela stood at 23.4%. In 2011 (according to the most recent statistics), it was 8.5%.
To put this into context, according to the World Bank, an average of 8 per 1,000 people in extreme poverty die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. This would mean in the region of 30,000 lives in Venezuela between 1999 and 2011 were saved as a result of the reduction of extreme poverty.
By any calculation, this is an incredible achievement, which can be put down to Chavez’s Socialist “missions” which invested in the poor in areas of health and education. And this figure is the minimum amount, as unmeasured are indirect causes of death through diseases directly related to poverty such as malaria or tuberculosis.
Compared to its nearest neighbour, Colombia, which has followed a neo-liberal, free market economic path for a number of years and whose main importer and exporter is the United States the statistics under Chávez remain impressive.
Poverty levels – based on the measurement of earnings of less than two dollars a day, “extreme poverty” is less than 1.25 dollars a day – in Colombia stood at 40.2% in 2011, in Venezuela it was 29.5%.
Unemployment stood at 11.2% in Colombia to 7.6% for its neighbour, while Venezuela was also considerably more equal, measuring a Gini Coefficient of 38 to 58.5 (the closer to zero, the better).
In 2011, Venezuela was the most equal society in South America with the fourth lowest level of poverty behind Chile, Uruguay and French Guiana.
“For me, Chávez will be the person who stood up for the people against imperialism”, says Caroline Lister, an Argentinian at the march outside the Venezuelan embassy.
In Colombia’s favour, it has a considerably lower level of inflation, 2.6% to Venezuela’s 30.6% and a more stable currency, where the black market dollar rate on the streets of Caracas reaches 25-1 with the official at 5-1.
It is important to keep in mind though that Colombia has nowhere near the wealth of resources Venezuela has. With the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela boasts a competitive advantage in this respect, although this by no means results in the wealth being passed on to its citizens. For confirmation of this, you need only take another look at the poverty levels before Chávez came to power
One of the world’s foremost academics, Noam Chomsky, has consistently hailed Chávez’s reign because he was the first Venezuelan leader “to give the oil back to its people”, although in more recent years has been more critical accusing Chávez of “amassing too much power in his own hands”.
Nonetheless, despite glowing statistics in certain sectors, Chávez’s reign has been vilified in large swathes of Western media since his death. The Economist magazine summed it up as “The Rotten Legacy” mourning the lost opportunity to install a neo-liberal regime during the mid-nineties, instead of the “brutish dictatorship” of Chávez.
Like his successes, there’s a vast swathe of glaring failures and questionable actions during his reign, too many to mention in an article of such length.
The most obvious is the rise in violence, with its capital, Caracas, becoming the most dangerous city in the world in 2011. There is a degree of unfortunate irony that while the amount of people dying of poverty has dropped, those killed in violent attacks has soared. 3,488 homicides were committed in Caracas alone in 2011.
“It is like a war. No other country in the world has this level of violence. This is solely the responsibility of Chávez. It’s a horrible situation”, said a Venezuelan student living in Buenos Aires who requested not to be named.
Another area consistently questioned during the Chávez reign is the concept of democracy. With days to the election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Caprillias, was shouting “fraud” due to the vast swathes of access to public money Maduro had for the campaign and the bias of state television. He also called foul on election night over what he described as “voting irregularities”.
The voting irregularities claims run contrary, though, to the judgements of the Carter Centre, a non-profit organisation set up to monitor election processes run by former US president Jimmy Carter. It concluded Venezuela’s fully-automated electoral system “of the 92 we’ve monitored, is the best the world”.
Others point to the silencing of the media as well. The main private television station, RCTV, had its request for license renewal in 2007 rejected. Critics suggested this was an encroachment of freedom of speech, while Chávez claimed the station was spewing propaganda and lies against him.
Nevertheless, there seems little doubt Chávez was intent on silencing his harshest critics. Stories of intimidation persist with the most notorious example being that of the imprisonment of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge, who was jailed after she let go a Venezuelan banker on trial for corruption charges.
The Venezuelan economy remains vulnerable as well with many economists predicting it will go bust within the short-term. Inflation is high at 32%, while citizens have little faith in their own currency which means capital flight for those who can save. Of course, those issues are primarily the concern of the middle-class. The poorer classes, where Maduro got his core vote, have subsidised supermarkets and little savings.
With six more years of the “Bolivarian revolution”, the world has a somewhat erratically functioning version of socialism. Its middle-classes despise it, its poorer classes adore it. Since Lehmann Brothers crashed in 2008, many worldwide have searched for a viable alternative to the unequal, wealth-obsessed, rich-concentrated neo-liberal economic model. If Venezuela’s revolution can hold, maybe the world has found another way.
Interviews conducted with the help of Katherine Mora