The Chavez Paradox: Assessing the Bolivarian Revolution

Article excerpt

In June, the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, traveled to Cuba for emergency surgery. A month later, the announcement that he was undergoing cancer treatment threw the apparent hegemony of his revolution into disarray and began to cast doubts on the future of his radical social agenda. Since then, updates concerning his health have been scarce, leading to rife speculation as to the exact nature of his illness and his political future. As Venezuela faces its greatest period of political uncertainty^ in close to a decade, the debate over the influence of 21" century Latin American socialism and its emblematic leader rages more intensely than it ever has. Well into his third term and thirteenth year in office, Chavez is the longest serving head of government in the Americas, inheriting the distinction from his maitre a penser and mentor, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Throughout this period, he has proven to be a resilient figure, overcoming public anathematization, rabid--albeit unorganized--political opposition, and even a coup attempt in 2002. His political brainchild, the Bolivarian Revolution, has brought substantial change to Venezuela, but has been contentious on several grounds.

The very notion of the Revolution is a source of disagreement. Whereas some consider it to be a quasi-cartoon-ish illustration of the government's limits and an assured catastrophe, others see it as the strongest element of the Chavez presidency and the greatest agent of change in a country that has been greatly pauperized over the last fifty years. Others doubt whether it is genuinely revolutionary, while its greatest detractors see it as- a- demagogical, populist front for the mass appropriation of power by Chavez. Almost fifteen years after its inception, Chavez's Revolution strives to present itself as a viable alternative to the liberal-democratic model championed by the United States. In The Revolution in Venezuela, Thomas Ponniah notes that common analysis of the chavista reforms has been largely too Manichean to capture the essence of the movement, which he argues cannot be understood in unequivocal terms. The crux of the argument concerning the value of the revolution thus lies in an evaluation of the government's statist policies and the degree to which they have brought forth a genuine amelioration of the Venezuelan population's condition.

Some view these changes as a growing threat to Venezuelan democracy, especially when seen in concert with some of the other measures enacted by the Chavez government. In 2009, after several failed attempts at doing so, Chavez finally passed a referendum allowing him to rtm for die office of President for an indefinite number of successive terms and has indicated his intention to keep running for several decades to come. Furthermore, the Chavez government has arrested a number of high-profile opponents to the regime, such as his 2006 election challenger Manuel Rosales, under the pretext of corruption, and media mogul Guillermo Zuloaga, for issuing remarks deemed to be offensive by Chavez. The latter was the owner of Globovision, one of the few remaining media outlets taking a strong anti-chavista stance before the government acquired a 20 percent share of it, and Chavez's interactions with the network have drawn scrutiny and criticism from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Catholic Church. However, proponents of the government argue that accusations levied against these individuals are accurate and that the Revolution needs to give itself the tools to defend itself.

Furthermore, those who defend the Bolivarian Revolution point to the social progress that has been accomplished under Chavez's leadership. Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, Venezuela's Human Development Index (HDI) had fallen below the regional average at the beginning of the 1990s and largely plateaued during the subsequent decade. …