Chávez: The Legacy and the Challenges

by Boaventura de Sousa Santos on March 12, 2013

Hugo Chávez, flickr
Originally posted at Carta Maior, translated by North Star — The most charismatic political leader in decades has died. In a democracy, charismatic leadership creates a political relation between rulers and ruled that is particularly mobilizing, because it combines democratic legitimacy with an identity of belonging and a set of shared objectives that go far beyond political representation. The popular classes, which are used to being beaten down by a faraway and repressive power (a power that low-intensity democracies foment), live through moments in which the distance between representatives and the represented almost disappears.

The opposition speaks of populism and authoritarianism, but it rarely succeeds in convincing voters. That is, in democracy, charisma allows levels of civic education that are difficult to reach in other conditions. The complex chemistry between charisma  and democracy deepens both processes, above all when it is translated into measures of redistributing social wealth. The problem with charisma is that it ends with the leader. To continue without him, democracy needs to be reinforced with ingredients whose chemistry is equally complex, above all in the immediate post-charismatic period: institutionality and popular participation.

Crying out  “We are all Chávez!” in the streets of Caracas, the people are lucidly conscious that Chávez was one man and that the Bolivarian Revolution will have enemies, internal and external, strong enough to put in question the intense democratic experience  of the last 14 years. In Brazil, President Lula was also a charismatic leader. After him, President Dilma Rousseff took advantage of the strong institutionality of the state and Brazilian democracy, but she has had difficulty complementing it with popular participation. In Venezuela, the strength of institutions is much weaker, while the impulse of popular participation is much greater. In this context, we should analyze Chávez’s legacy and the difficulties on the horizon.

The Legacy

Redistribution of wealth. Chávez, like other Latin American leaders, took advantage of the boom in natural resources (especially petroleum) to achieve an unprecedented program of social policies, especially in the areas of education, health, housing, and infrastructure, that substantially improved the lives of the immense majority of the population. Saudi Venezuela gave way to Bolivarian Venezuela.

Regional integration. Chávez was a tireless architect of regional integration. This was not merely a calculation of survival or hegemony. Chávez believed like no one else in Simón Bolívar’s idea of the Patria Grande. He viewed the substantive political differences among the countries of the region as discussions within a great family. When he had the chance, he made sure to reestablish links with the most reticent and pro-U.S. member of the family, Colombia. He made sure that relations among the Latin American countries went far beyond trade and that they were patterned on a logic of complementarity and reciprocity, not on a capitalist logic. His solidarity with Cuba is well known, but it was equally decisive with Argentina during the crisis of 2001–02 and with the small countries of the Caribbean.

He was an enthusiast of all forms of integration that helped the continent quit its role as the “backyard” of the United States. He led the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), later known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA-TCP); he also wanted to be a member of Mercosur. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) are other integrationist institutions that Chávez gave impulse to.

Anti-imperialism. In the most critical moments of his government (including the resistance to the coup d’état that he was a victim of in 2002), Chávez was confronted with the most aggressive U.S. unilateralism (George W. Bush), which arrived at its most destructive point with the invasion of Iraq. Chávez had the conviction that what was happening in the Middle East would happen one day in Latin America if the region did not prepare for that eventuality. Hence his interest in regional integration. But he was also convinced that the only way to confront the United States was to nurture multilateralism, strengthening what remained of it from the Cold War. Hence his approaching Russia, China, and Iran. He knew that the United States, with the support of the European Union, would continue “liberating” all those countries that could challenge Israel or pose a threat to the access to petroleum. Thus the “liberation” of Libya, followed by that of Syria, and in the near future, Iran. Hence also the United States and European Union’s lack of interest in “liberating” the country governed by the most retrograde dictatorship, Saudi Arabia.

Socialism of the 21st century. Chávez did not manage to construct 21st-century socialism, which he called Bolivarian socialism. What was his model of socialism, taking into account that he always showed a reverence for the Cuban experience, which many consider excessive? It consoles me to know that on several occasions, Chávez referred with approval to my definition of socialism: “Socialism is unlimited democracy.” Of course, these were speeches, and in practice it would undoubtedly be more difficult and complex. He wanted Bolivarian socialism to be peaceful but armed so that what happened to Salvador Allende would not happen to him. He nationalized businesses, which raised the ire of foreign investors, who took revenge with an impressive demonization campaign against him in Europe (especially in Spain), as well as in the United States. He broke up the capitalism that existed but did not replace it. Hence the crisis of supply shortages and investment, inflation and growing dependence on oil revenues. He polarized the class struggle and put the old and new capitalist classes on alert, classes that for a long time had an almost total monopoly over the media and always maintained control over finance capital. The polarization came to the street, and many felt that the great increase in crime resulted from it (would they say the same of the increase in crime in Sao Paulo or Johannesburg?).

The communal state. Chávez knew that the state machine built by the oligarchies, which had always dominated the country, would do everything possible to block the new revolutionary process that, in contrast to previous ones, was born in and nurtured by democracy. For that reason, he sought to build parallel structures. The first of these were the missions, a wide-ranging program of public policies in different sectors, each one with a suggestive name (for example, the Misión Barrio Adentro [Inside the Neighborhood Mission], to offer health services to the popular classes), with popular participation and aid from Cuba. After the institutionalization of popular power, a territorial system parallel to the existing one (states and municipalities), with the comuna [municipal division] as the basic cell, social property as a principle, and the construction of socialism as the principal objective. In contrast to other Latin American experiences that attempted to link representative democracy with participatory democracy (the case of participatory budgeting and popular sectoral councils), the communal state assumed a relationship of confrontation between these two forms of democracy. Perhaps this was its great weakness.

The Challenges

The civic-military union. Chávez assumed power upon two bases: the democratic adhesion of the popular classes and the political union between the civil power and the armed forces. This union has always been problematic on the continent and, when it existed, almost always had a conservative character and even a dictatorial one. Chávez, himself a military man, achieved a union with a progressive meaning that gave the regime stability. But to do this he had to give economic power to the military, which, as well as being a source of corruption, could tomorrow turn against the Bolivarian Revolution or, which is the same, subvert its transformative and democratic spirit.

Extractivism. The Bolivarian Revolution deepened Venezuela’s dependency on petroleum and natural resources in general, a phenomenon that, far from being specific to Venezuela, is today present in other countries administered by governments considered progressive, such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Excessive dependence on natural resources prevents the economy’s diversification, destroys the environment, and, above all, constitutes a constant aggression against indigenous and campesino populations in whose territories these resources are found, contaminating their water, ignoring their ancestral rights, violating international law (which demands that such populations be consulted), expelling them from their lands, killing their communitarian leaders. Just a day before Chávez died, Sabino Romero, a great indigenous leader of the Sierra de Perijá, Venezuela,whose struggle I have for years been in solidarity with, was slain. Will Chávez’s successors know how to confront this problem?

The political regime. Even if it is democratically elected, a political regime tailored to a charismatic leader tends to be a problem for successors. The challenges are enormous in the Venezuelan case. On the one hand, the general weakness of institutions; on the other, a parallel institutionality, the communal state, dominated by the party created by Chávez, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). If the free-for-all of the party comes to power, it will be the end of the Bolivarian Revolution. The PSUV is an aggregation of different tendencies, and coexistence among them has been difficult.

With the unifying figure of Chávez now gone, ways of expressing internal diversity must be found. Only an intense exercise of internal democracy will allow the PSUV to be one of the national expressions of democratic deepening that will block the advance of the political forces interested in destroying, point by point, everything that the popular classes have conquered in recent years. If corruption is not controlled and internal differences are reprimanded with declarations that all are Chavistas and each is more chavista than the next, the path will be opened for the enemies of the revolution. One thing is certain: if the example of Chávez must be followed, it is crucial that critics not be reprimanded. The authoritarianism that has characterized large sectors of the Latin American left must be abandoned.

The great challenge for the continent’s progressive forces is knowing how to distinguish between Chávez’s polemicizing style, which was certainly controversial, and the substantive political sense of his government, which was unequivocally in favor of the popular classes and of Latin American integration. Conservative forces will do everything possible to confuse them. Chávez decisively contributed to the consolidation of democracy in the social imaginary. He consolidated it where it is most difficult to be betrayed: in the hearts of the popular classes. This is also where betrayal is most dangerous. Who can imagine the popular classes of any other country spilling bitter tears at the death of a democratic political leader, as Venezuelans have done on the TV screens of the world? This is a precious patrimony, as much for Venezuelans as for all Latin Americans. It would be a crime to squander it.


Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and the University of Wisconsin. Translated by The North Star. Se encuentra una versión en español aquí.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan Nack March 12, 2013 at 1:45 pm

An excellent piece! The point about developing more of a collective leadership of the PSUV and more internal democracy and accountability within the party are well taken.

However, I don´t think the point, ¨with the unifying figure of Chávez now gone,¨ will apply to this upcoming presidential election. In fact, I think Chavez will be more present in this election than ever before as a unifying figure of the left and social movements. Nicholas Maduro will be the name on the ballot, but the man Venezuelans will be voting for will still be Hugo Chavez. As a martyr to the cause of the Bolivarian Revolution, the figure of Hugo Chavez will be more powerful than ever in this election. One can also expect this phenomenon to continue for years to come. Think of the continuing power of Che.

The Venezuelan oligharcy and right is really depressed that Pres. Chavez died when he did. They had hoped he could have made mistakes in the future that would erode his support among the masses. That can´t happen now. Chavez´s legacy as the greatest president in Venezuelan history, as a champion for social justice, as a helmsman of the Bolivarian Revolution and the construction of a Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, is forever sealed as far as the working class and the poor are concerned. This is really bad news for the rightwing opposition.

Maduro´s challenge is to live up to Chavez´s legacy. He is not el Commandante, nobody is. He does not combine all the leaderships talents that Chavez did. However, Maduro brings a lot to the table. He is a second generation radical socialist. He is a man of the working class, having been a bus driver who rose to be president of the bus driver´s union. Nobody does that without leadership skills.

Maduro is more soft spoken and choses his words with great care. There have been some comments by both those on the right and left that he may be more pragmatic, but as yet, there is no evidence that his policies will not be every bit as radical as those of Chavez. To the contrary, his continuation within the inner circles of Chavez´s cabinet while others came and went, and el Commondante´s trust in him, speak to the opposite.

Maduro´s experience as Foriegn Minister have given him tremendous experience and international connections to other left leaders, as well as confronting U.S. imperialism. He is a man who chooses his words carefully, so while he can´t fire up the masses the way Chavez did, he will provide the opposition and U.S. with fewer opportunities to pick on things he says.

Given the tremendous outpouring of love and respect for Chavez upon his death, combined with further disintergration of the rightwing opposition, I would not be surprised if Maduro doesn´t defeat Henrique Capriles by an even wider margin than Chavez did in last year´s election. In the immediate future, no one should expect any major deviation from Chavez´s policies. Beyond that, only time will tell.


Pham Binh March 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I’m really grateful for this translation. This assessment is head-and-shoulders above just about everything I’ve read from the English-speaking left, Marxist and otherwise. Trotskyist attempts in circa 2002-2005 to fit Chavez and Chavismo into preconceived molds like “bonapartism,” the Allende/Kerensky experience, or (for Cliffites) “state capitalism” were embarrassing theoretical failures and a reflection of an inability to see life and contradictions as they actually exist, evolve, struggle, and grow.

Ideologically, you could argue that the man was a reformist, but in doing so, you’d be missing the point. Being a revolutionary is not about having a PhD in orthodox Marxism, it’s about what you do in practice. Chavez was infinitely more revolutionary than all of his left critics put together because he dared to struggle and dared to win under any and all circumstances. He wasn’t prepared to sell a newspaper until a new 1917 erupted; his coup attempt failed, but he wasn’t wrong for trying, and he made it very clear that the struggle would continue despite being beaten “for now.” His solution to his coup’s defeat was simple but also very difficult: run for the presidency, and run not to make propaganda or set of arguments but to win and disrupt the bourgeois state machine from within (which is what orthodox Marxists should be in favor of doing in all bourgeois democracies).

Chavez accomplished this by situating himself firmly within national-revolutionary popular consciousness by using the rhetoric of Bolivar and Bolivarianism, much as Lenin and his comrades did when they named their newspaper Iskra and put “From a spark a fire will flare up” on its masthead (it was a line from a Russian revolutionary poem written by Alexander Odoevsky, a leader of the Decembrist revolt of 1825). He didn’t come to power talking about “socialism in the 21st century” because he knew the masses weren’t yet ready for that; sloganeering along those lines would only lead to confusion — did he mean the USSR? Sweden? DRPK (ugh)? Cuba? It was through and after the bitter experience of the coup attempt in 2002 and the bosses’ lockout in 2005 that the idea of wiping out the boss class and its power i.e. socialism, i.e. “unlimited democracy” as Chavez put it, gained traction in the minds of the Venezuelan masses. Creating missions and other mass-based participatory forms that were messy, chaotic, but nonetheless empowering (foreshadowing Occupy perhaps?) made sense only after the bourgeoisie demonstrated its greed and contempt for democratic institutions; in fact, these forms became imperative if Chavez was not to be isolated as the lone heroic figure armed with an AK-47 as the right’s troops stormed the presidential palace as Allende was in 1973.

There is so much we could and should be learning from Chavismo and applying to our own nationally-specific conditions and pieces like this show that we’re only scratching the surface for these lessons.


Arthur March 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm

If Chavez was a revolutionary why did he side with the counter-revolution in both Libya and Syria. The article specifically mentions and endorses his stand on that.Ignoring it won’t wash.


Pham Binh March 18, 2013 at 10:56 am
Steve Ellner March 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Excellent piece. The reference to the comunas as a parallel structure is a good point. As de Sousa Santos states, the parallel structures go back to the missions created in 2003, but also the founding of a parallel labor confederation that ended up displacing the traditional Workers Confederation of Venezuela (CTV) that had supported two attempts to overthrow Chavez and had for some time been collaborating with the main business association, Fedecamaras. In any case, the parallel structures serve to shake up and get around the bureaucracy that is sometimes the kiss of death of revolutionary processes.


Richard Estes March 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm

During my brief time in Venezuela in 2005, I was struck by the extraordinary decentralization of power and land possession in comparison with the US. My impression is that Chavez relied upon this decentralization, a decentralization that relied upon parallel power and pre-existing jurisdictional uncertainty to advance his progressive agenda.

De Souza Santos considers this a possible weakness, but I am not so sure, because it created spaces for collective empowerment outside the state apparatus, spaces for a mobilization that may be necessary to resist a rightward turn in the near future. Indeed, such power forced Chavez to do things that he didn’t necessary want to do, such as, for example, when unions and social movements in Ciudad Guyana overcame the opposition of a Chavez aligned governor to force the recovery of a privatized steel company, SIDOR.

It is also worth noting that the participatory democracy described by De Souza Santos elsewhere in South America has a mixed record, with some believing that it has drained away the power of social movements, especially in Bolivia. Perhaps, Chavez understood that communal power outside the government is necessary to prevent the government, and the party within it, from separating themselves from the needs of the people. For now, it is too soon to tell whether he was correct.

As an aside, everyone here may already know, but, if you don’t, Steve Ellner is a highgly regarded scholar in relation to Chavez and Venezuela. It is great to have him stop by the site and comment.


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