Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist, has posited that in Latin America, pure, unadorned reality trumps fiction every time. To judge from the latest developments in Venezuela, he may be right. A head of state getting ill during a visit abroad is not unheard of. But that he would stay for 26 days in the host country, as President Hugo Chavez recently did in Cuba, after being diagnosed with cancer while visiting Fidel Castro, and undergoing an emergency operation there, sets a record of sorts.
Even more picturesque is the way presidential responsibilities were handled in Chavez’s absence. There is a vice-president, Elias Jaua, handpicked by his boss, and as loyal as they come, one of whose duties presumably is to stand in for the president when the latter is not around.
Yet, this did not happen. Chavez continued to run the country from his hospital bed in Havana for close to a month. No intimation was given that the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution would delegate one inch of his presidential powers to any of his collaborators.
Rarely has the fragility of personalized political power been in such open display. Were Chavez to succumb to what seems to be a serious condition, it seems unlikely that the elaborate constitutional structure on which he has built his 21st century socialism project would survive. Such are the perils of caudillismo, that long-standing bane of Latin America.
Yet, contrary to much of the coverage of the northern media, Chavez is not a dictator. He is very good at winning elections, something he has done almost uninterruptedly for the past 12 years. Polls indicate that he still commands the support of a majority of Venezuelans, though rampant inflation and burgeoning crime have dented his approval ratings. He tends to push the edges of accepted liberal democratic norms — with imprisoned judges, forcibly exiled opposition politicians and media outlets harassed by government.
This, however, does not a dictatorship make, and it is odd that far more violent anti-democratic practices, like the killing of journalists that has become established practice in Honduras, where 10 of them were shot to death in 2010 — is met with deafening silence abroad.
Chavez and his antics provide a ready foil for those to see him as embodying everything that is wrong with Latin American politics — the populism, the personalism and the inability to let go of power. Yet, far too much has been made of his supposed influence in the region. His star has been on the wane for quite some time, long before his current illness.
As long ago as in 2006 he couldn’t get sufficient regional support for Venezuela’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president-elect, turned from an ardent Chavez supporter in the previous presidential elections, to embracing the more moderate, social-democratic style and substance of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — which made all the difference, and got him elected last June (if only by the skin of his teeth).
As the recent presence in Caracas of the presidents of Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay shows, Chavez still commands some drawing power.
But whatever allure his Bolivarian Revolution project once had has dissipated. The economic difficulties Venezuela herself is now undergoing, with one of the world’s highest inflation rates (at 22 per cent this year), despite its oil riches, hardly enhance the credibility of such a venture. Amazingly, Venezuela’s oil exports have declined from 3.1 million barrels per day in 1998 to 2.4 million in 2010. And those Latin American countries that lack oil, that is, the vast majority, are fully aware that they will need to fend for themselves in a tough, globalized economy in which no one owes them a living.
The good news is that, pace Chavez mishandling of the Venezuelan economy, the rest of the region is doing very well, thank you. Brazil’s main problem today is its currency appreciation due to massive foreign investment inflows. Chile grew at a 7 per cent yearly rate in May. In Argentina, polls indicate President Cristina Fernandez will coast to reelection next October thanks to booming exports.
Not surprisingly, Standard&Poor’s is already talking about us being “at the dawn of the Latin American decade.” There is no reason for this to be affected by Chavez’s travails.
Jorge Heine, CIGI chair in global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is currently a public policy scholar at The Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.