Reactions to Hugo Chavez’s death have certainly been mixed. While prominent Venezuelan leaders, like vice-president Nicolas Maduro and leading opposition figure, Henrique Capriles Radonski, have both underscored the need for national unity, it seems unlikely at this critical juncture. During his presidency Chavez alienated a significant portion of Venezuelans; protests came to be seen as a symbol of his tenure. In light of this political instability and Chavez’ polarizing popularity, much is expected and hoped for from his successor. Most pressingly, socioeconomic pressures that stand in the way of stability need to be addressed at once.
Chavez’ track record mitigating those very socioeconomic concerns was mixed . Though his initial climb to power via military coup failed in 1992, Chavez ultimately won the presidential elections in 1999 as the leader of Venezuela’s leftist political party at the time: the Fifth Republic Movement. Upon his inauguration, Chavez sought to redirect the country’s oil wealth to social programs for the country’s poor, cementing support from the lower echelons of the Venezuelan population. Looking at key developmental indicators such as unemployment, GDP per capita, infant mortality and the percentage of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty, statistics show that the country’s dire social concerns had improved during Chavez’s leadership.
However, without discrediting the continued persistence of such issues, the upcoming President should look to immediately tackle the unintended consequences of Chavez’s policies. For example, inflation and the devaluation of the Bolivar underscore the Venezuelan government’s inability to use oil as a tool for broad-based prosperity. Contrary to Chavez’s nominally benevolent intentions, corruption and fear tactics became the norm. For example, employees of corporations like PDVSA, Venezuela’s main oil refining and processing company were fired after Chavez expropriated oil companies. Feelings of hopelessness with regards to the country’s economic prosperity and fear for the lack of social security have subsequently driven middle and upper classes to move abroad. This brain drain does not bode well for a vibrant economic future in Venezuela. Politically, it also weakens a significant voice for social and political change at this critical time.
Presently though, the Venezuelan people are chiefly concerned with the question of what happens next. Will the power vacuum be filled peacefully or not? And will pre-election Venezuela be a setting for scenes of chaos or optimism for a brighter tomorrow?
In South American countries, political views often coincide with socioeconomic status, suggesting that even though globalization and technology propelled political activism in other areas, it may not hold the same kind of promise for mobilization in Venezuela. Political views are too deeply entrenched to revamp between now and the elections. As a result, many fear for the situation in Venezuela. “I think this next month before the re-elections are going to be really tense. There are going to be riots and a struggle for power,” says Camila Ochoa-Mendoza, a Venezuelan student in London, UK.
Even more concerning, younger generations’ priorities do not rest in political mobilization to challenge the status quo. Sonia Perez, a Venezuelan student at Boston University states, “Young people usually hold similar views to their parents… [or] are not usually interested in the positions of their government. They want to pursue more stable and safe professions. Nobody wants to be the target of kidnapping or exile.” The inclination towards political apathy and fear of political coercion discourage the evolution of political ideas, a vital part of democratic governance. It limits a diverse cross-section of voices, contradicting Venezuela’s system of democracy.
Thus, Chavez’s death marks a critical juncture because it provides an opportunity for Venezuela to reevaluate its priorities, and shift from social developmental goals to sustainable economic and political ones. The fact that Venezuelans democratically elected a leftist leader in 1998 is very telling of the country’s previous domestic concerns and needs at the time. However, 14 years later, Venezuela’s priorities must be renegotiatiated. With the right leader, the diversity of opinions can be reignited, the allocation of wealth can be reevaluated, and a sense of stability can be restored.
– Tiffany Lam
(Featured photo: y www_ukberri_net, Creative Commons, Flickr)