Perhaps the most interesting paradox taking place during the three decades of Latin America’s democratization has been the rise (and potential demise) of Chavismo. After 15 years beating the drum for Latin America’s total autonomy from US influence, the Bolivarian Revolution is facing fast deterioration, turning all of a sudden into an ancien regime. Created as a remake of 20th Century Latin American populism, its egalitarian rhetoric produced an immense fascination worldwide both in the progressive Left and among nations sharing an anti-US sentiment. Today the improbable dream has become a bad joke, a mixture of economic chaos, rude military rule, repression, and corruption. Few of its promises and social gains rest on their feet today. Not even its self-confessed submission to the rags of the Cuban revolution has avoided the failure of the oil-fueled populist invention—especially after the US finally realized that maintaining an odd Cold War with Cuba was close to insanity.

The political system set up by the unlikely genius of Hugo Chávez could be characterized as a hybrid between autocracy and democracy, a new form of autocratic regime born in the post-Cold War era seeking to preserve a certain aura of democratic legitimacy. While Marina Ottaway has called this political form semi-authoritarianism, Fareed Zacharia prefers a more classic term: illiberal democracy. In turn, Steven Levitsky & Lucas Way rename these regimes as competitive authoritarian while comparing different countries and studying their internal and external logics of operation.

Today the improbable dream has become a bad joke, a mixture of economic chaos, rude military rule, repression, and corruption.

Regardless of the definition, the Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution has been based on 4 pillars or rules of operation which grant it legitimacy and stability: (1) A connection of the populist leader with the (his) people’s sentiments, especially the poor. (2) Providing massive material gains and solutions to the people’s problems under the umbrella of the so-called “missions”. The engine supporting those efforts was a long-lasting boost in consumption made possible by windfall profits from high oil prices during most of Chávez’s tenure. (3) The permanent polarization of society between the government of the people and a cluster of “enemies” presumably in constant guard to curb the attainment of the Revolution’s liberating goals. Last but not least, (4) creating and nurturing a strong network of international allies wholeheartedly supporting first Chávez’s and later Maduro’s policies.

The reader will find here an explanation of how, almost three years after Chávez traveled to Cuba for the last time to overcome the cancer that brought his political project to a halt, the four pillars he carefully set up have either disappeared or remain shaky. The article ends with an excursus into the current situation which, should inertia continue its slow erosion, may push the Maduro government into its own demise.

Four Pillars of Legitimacy and Support

The first mechanism of legitimacy consisted in giving a voice to the people. It involved bringing back to life the 20th century Latin American populist tradition, which essentially entails a providential leader devolving the people their rights. This role of the caudillo was combined with old notions of the “soldier” as instrument for social redemption. This combination was aptly defined in the early days of Chavismo by the late Norberto Ceresole, an obscure Argentinean ideologue who postulated the axis of power-to-be as the triad Army/Caudillo/People. Conceived essentially as a political strategy, the caudillo—that is, Chávez—ought to bring about a broad alliance of the military and the dispossessed through his strong connection with the masses and his former military career. Both the alliance and its source of legitimacy required the caudillo to be at the center of the political system. This essential condition of the Chavista regime disappeared abruptly with the death of the caudillo.

As Chilean-German political analyst Fernando Mires has insightfully argued, there is no populism without a caudillo. Chávez was an indefatigable creator of political metaphors. He gave birth to several narratives with great echo among his fellow citizens. Among them the obsession—allegedly an inheritance from Bolivar, the Liberator— with a new independence, the place of the army in making it possible, the rejection of a greedy business oligarchy preventing those in need to access the oil wealth, and the rhetoric of permanent confrontation against internal and external enemies. By embarking in this ambitious crusade while following his intuition as the new Latin American veritable caudillo, he transformed Venezuelan politics into a national solar system. In it everything, from primary education to Supreme Court sentences, or which company to nationalize a given week, had him at its center, as a modern demigod.

Chávez’s death leaves behind a powerful symbolic heritage. The hard core heirs of the Bolivarian Revolution, sons and granddaughters alike, will continue to profess him deep love for having restored their hopes and by providing an emotional sense to the social void in their lives. But the hero himself is gone. To be sure, there has been a monumental effort to restore this initial connection through creating a myth, that of the “eternal commander”, the “giant” or the “galactic leader” in pretty much the same sort of civic religion long cherished by Venezuelans and other Latin Americans around the myth of Simón Bolívar, or as in Argentina, around Perón. Chávez continues to be the incarnation of a very well manufactured narrative about the country’s ills but the source of identification, the prime mover behind the myth is gone.

During 2014 and 2015 the most common question posed by analysts of Chavismo is this: Why did the master of political intuition select Nicolás Maduro as his successor? Why choose a leader so devoid of the populist aura that made Chavez a symbol worldwide? The contrast is so dramatic that in the last two years the Bolivarian regime’s popularity has plummeted to its lowest. The response is simple: no other leader could have filled the void left by the caudillo.

The Wasteful State Weakened

The rational connection through delivering material solutions is also highly diminished. By creating a vast network of wholesale and retail mechanisms under the direct administration of Pdvsa, the multi-billion rich state oil company, the ruling oligarchy sought to instill in millions of Venezuelans an economic calculus in favor of the revolution. That is why the Chávez phenomenon and its sheer extravagance happened nowhere else in Latin America. During the caudillo’s tenure, Venezuela lived the longest oil boom in its history. The price of oil jumped from around $9 a barrel in 1998 to around $100 in the last decade, allowing a tenfold boost in revenue and facilitating Chávez government wide room for economic maneuvering. In 15 years the regime has handled in its coffers, revenues close to tripled in size to those of all the democratic administrations combined during 40 years.

This bonanza led Chávez to improvise one economic idea after the other, in the quest for the impossible dream of creating a new socialist system to replace what he and his adherents interpreted as a declining capitalism. Paradoxically, they acted as if the prior socialist failures of the 20th Century never existed. The oil rents coming so handily to their laps as a result of factors such as the commodity boom (induced by economic giants as China and India,) seem to have acted as a powerful drug infusing a sheer sense of will power. He persuaded himself that he was able to achieve anything. The result was a reverse Midas transformation: everything he touched was ruined. Especially in his final five years, Chávez’s policies provoked the demolition of an already weak productive sector, be it agricultural or industrial.

Despite a long tradition as a rentier economy, in 1998, just before Chavez entered the scene, non-traditional exports represented around 20 percent of Venezuela’s foreign exchange revenues. By the end of his era, however, Venezuela is more dependent than ever on oil revenues for its trade relations with the rest of the world—it compares only with the beginning of oil production in the country during the 1920s and 1930s. From 2007 to 2012, Chavez set in motion an orgy of nationalizations: telecom, steel and other metal products, cement, chemicals, agricultural inputs, milk, pulp and paper, hotels, TV and radio stations and networks, not to mention vast productive landholdings and distribution centers of food at subsidized prices nationwide. Even an old building in the historic quarter of Caracas, which hosting a traditional jewelry shop and a cinema, was the object of the expropriation ire of the new populist king. In due course, most of those experiments led to a productive wreckage: enterprises not going bankrupt managed to stay afloat only as a result of the permanent injection of funds by the central government. This long list of economic burdens contributed to a hike in the fiscal deficit, affecting external maneuverability. What began as a prudent fiscal policy has ended in disaster.

In 2013, the Maduro government inherited a dire financial situation as a result of the final push to win the 2012 presidential elections, if one is to believe Jorge Giordani, Chavez’s most trusted planning minister. Giordani described the situation in those terms in a public letter in 2014, when dismissed from his post by the new president. As a result high inflation and low growth have gone hand in hand with high levels of scarcity. The economic model Chavez created is noticeably breaking down. On top of that, Maduro’s own mishandling of the economy has brought the administration to a point where it can no longer deliver adequately the flagship social programs. With negative economic growth, an inflation rate of 70 percent in 2014 (tilting toward three digits in 2015), and scarcity levels that range from 40 to 70 percent nationwide depending on the product and location, the rational calculus around what the government can deliver has been shattered. As a result the political support to the socialist idea dwindles. Quoting the famous German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht: “First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics”.

Set to avoid an economic stabilization program, Maduro’s attempt to tamper the financial difficulties ensuing from a feast of dilapidated petrodollars has been to restrict imports. Maduro hopes to guarantee other economic obligations, such as payment of external debt disbursements. But given the terrible shape of Venezuela’s production capacity in almost all sectors, the country has become essentially a two-trading-goods economy, only to be found in Economics 101 textbooks: it sells only oil and imports the rest from abroad. In turn, the lack of foreign currency—due to wasteful economic behavior, both internal and international—has led to drastic scarcities in basic goods, medicine, spare parts and most other industrial inputs. Even air travels have been curtailed, as airlines cannot exchange their gains in bolivars to dollars. Venezuela has become a land of long lines, where its citizens can devote hours on end to find milk or toilette paper. It has also become more and more isolated from the rest of the world, exactly the opposite direction that Cuba, its model of society, is attempting to follow.

A Carl Schmitt Paradise

It is in respect to polarization, the third pillar of the political rationale dominating the Chavez-Maduro era, that the ruling elite continue to have the upper hand. The rhetoric of insults and false accusations, in addition to the fabrication of twisted arguments, jointly portray the opposition as the scapegoat of negative trends on all fronts. Both Chavez and his successors have been intuitively masterful pupils of the German political scientist Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, the realm of politics becomes true only when societies force themselves into extreme internal confrontation, or against other nations. Concerning Germany on the eve of the Third Reich, Schmitt argued that the Weimer Republic—and liberal democracy in general—with its obsession with dialogue, negotiation, and compromise, contributed only to tampering the deeper impulses of real politics. In turn, the newborn regime allowed these impulses to burst openly, making politics possible.

For the past fifteen years, Venezuela has been subject to a continuous confrontation, where political adversaries are not only despised as enemies but even physically harassed. There is fresh memory of a 2012 session in the National Assembly when, in the wake of a polemic debate, pro-government congressmen and their bodyguards punched several opposition legislators, throwing them to the floor—under the unmoved regard of the Speaker, Diosdado Cabello. Among the affected were María Corina Machado—a young legislator who was arbitrarily stripped of her post as legislator in 2014—and Julio Borges (head of the majoritarian opposition party), both of whom suffered severe injuries.

Maduro’s government has been far more repressive than Chavez’s several administrations. When in February of 2014 student unrest unraveled nationwide against the government for its inadequate response to violent crime, the Maduro administration crushed it ruthlessly. Several police branches and the National Guard, sometimes in cahoots with armed militia groups (the so-called “colectivos”, or collectives) set out an unprecedented wave of repression—both in intensity and scale—with strong legal backing by the Prosecutor’s Office and the courts. As of mid-2015, the balance was 49 deaths (29 shot, many in the head), more than 900 wounded, close to 4,000 detentions, of which around 1,800 freed under cautionary measures, 154 tortured, two mayors and a legislator (Machado) stripped of their elected offices. Additionally, Leopoldo López, a major opposition leader accused as the main instigator of the upheaval and Antonio Ledezma, the Mayor of Great Caracas, were also imprisoned and accused of conspiracy.

In spite of the successful efforts to silence the press by legal measures and through direct pressure, most opinion polls disclosed in 2014 and in 2015 show a substantial majority (between 60 to 80 percent) of the population pointing to the government as responsible for Venezuela’s current ills. Moreover, the perception about where the country is heading is largely negative. It remains true that the opposition has not profited entirely from this wave of discontent, but the division of the country in two almost equal forces is no longer present. Venezuela is no longer polarized in real terms.

More Isolation, Less Respect

Finally, regarding the pillar of international support, during the last two years, the Venezuelan government has ceased to find the automatic solidarity and support it used to receive. The financial coffers at its disposal for handling international policy through Petrocaribe, ALBA, and a host of bilateral agreements with many countries have vanished into thin air. As a result, most arrangements have been either put on hold or substantially modified. In the wake of Venezuela’s current difficulties to maintain the oil discounts granted through Petrocaribe to Central American and Caribbean countries, US diplomacy has stepped in, seeking to provide what it has dubbed as “energy security”.

But most significantly, Venezuela’s dire human rights record has brought about new alignments from both allies and adversaries. While Venezuela’s critics have become more vocal in denouncing excessive repression and the imprisonment of political opponents, its partners have either dropped ambiguous commentaries or suggested the need for dialogue. Senate bodies in countries like Brazil, Chile, and Spain, have condemned the authoritarian trend in Venezuela. The newly elected Vice-President of Uruguay, a strong ally of Venezuela, declared that there was no clear proof of a conspiracy against Venezuela, which led to veiled attacks of cowardice by Maduro. Former Uruguayan President Mujica, said Venezuela should hold no political prisoners and Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, acknowledged for the first time the existence of a struggle in favor of political prisoners. Even the new OAS (Organization of American States) Secretary General, Luis Almagro, has been very prudent in calling for dialogue with the opposition and the Secretary General of UNASUR has demanded that a clear date for the National Assembly elections be fixed. The long tradition of Venezuela as a generous country, where human rights and the rule of law were respected during the 20th century’s era of fierce dictatorships, has been tarnished. The Bolivarian Revolution has become a damaged brand.

Over the years several cases of human rights violations have illustrated the authoritarian trend in Venezuela. The first was that of Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a judge imprisoned in 2009 under direct orders from Chavez, who was set free under cautionary measures after a wide international campaign. Even Noam Chomsky, worldly known Leftist thinker, was involved in seeking her liberation. In 2010 he published an open letter in several international newspapers pledging for her release. More recently, however, the most influential case in shaping the international perception has been that of Leopoldo Lopez, member of a new breed of opposition politicians. After the 2014 protests he was imprisoned and accused of instigating the upheaval. Given his poor treatment in prison and the absence of due process, he has become an international symbol of Venezuela’s problematic handling of dissent. Earlier this year, Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Great Caracas, was also imprisoned after a brutal raid into his office.

Venezuela’s dire human rights record has brought about new alignments from both allies and adversaries.

The influence of the Venezuelan model and the arguments in its favor put down roots in Latin America during the Chávez era. The assault against the Inter American Human Rights System during the last five years, which sought to minimize its influence in the region, is an illustrative example, as recounted in an earlier article published by HIR . But 2015 finds Venezuela’s government more isolated than ever. Very instrumental in that trend was the announcement of a new era in Cuban-US relations by Obama and Raul Castro on December 17, 2014. If there was ever a single factor hampering a definite reconciliation of Latin America with the US, it was the American policy vis-à-vis Cuba. By breaking away from a long discredited, anachronistic, and failed attempt to isolate its small neighbor, the US may have contributed to the withering away of a long held myth: that of a revolutionary David confronting the sheer force of a Goliath superpower. But it has also led to the further isolation of Venezuela. Though still early in the process, one could argue that the US–Cuba rapprochement has brought Venezuela to the forefront of the confrontation with the US while Cuba moves to the rearguard.

One important example in this trend was the recent disclosure by several European and American newspapers of an investigation by the US Justice Department into the links between Diosdado Cabello, Venezuela’s number two leader, and narcotics networks to supply Colombia-originated cocaine into Europe and the US. This investigation, based on the testimonies of former Chavista leaders, mid-range officers, and drug dealers has, once again, shaken the credibility of an already weak government, with probable political impact within the Chavista nomenklatura, the organized corpus of followers and government officials.

The Next Chapter

Despite Venezuela’s somber picture in these four realms, the Maduro government still holds on firmly to power, thanks to three factors. The first is the “fear-meter”, which explains Maduro’s brutal reaction to the 2014 student’s upheaval. The wave of protests was dramatically crushed, setting a precedent for future political mobilization. Secondly, the internal divisions within the ruling oligarchy so far do not anticipate any serious crisis. The dismissal of Jorge Giordani and other leaders of the ruling party failed to produce any substantial division. Even the usually alluded division between president Maduro and Cabello, has failed to produce grave fractures. A balance of forces seems to prevail. Finally, in the eyes of the international community, Venezuela has not yet crossed the line, either regarding what is acceptable by the Inter American Charter of Democracy or UN human rights statutes.

The most important juncture defining future trends in Venezuela is the election for the National Assembly at the end of 2015 (in a still undisclosed date). This new political chapter finds the opposition internally divided between those betting on street protests as a mechanism to push for a constitutional change and the moderates who continue to place their hopes in elections as the most suitable strategy to accelerate a transition out of the present status quo. After the gradual loss in intensity—and sense of direction—of the 2014 protests, the coming legislative elections have become the most important political test. This time around, most well-regarded opinion polls show an important numerical advantage for the opposition. In most other elections after 1998, the government always enjoyed either a handsome majority or, in the worst scenario, a tie, paving the way for abuses of all sorts—before, during, and after the respective elections. However, a wave of protests could begin anew after Leopoldo Lopez and other political prisoners decided to enter a hunger strike in late May, asking for open mobilization to support their claims. This could strain the opposition’s capacity to successfully confront the coming election. A clear-cut division is not to be discarded, given what now seems an open dispute for the leadership of the forces of dissent between Leopoldo López and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

A change in the composition of the National Assembly (NA) favoring the opposition would alter the balance of power in different ways. One would be that Diosdado Cabello—No 2 in the regime and a participant in Chávez’s 1992 coup—would be unseated as President of the NA. Such change would wreak havoc internally in the Chavista forces. But more importantly, it could lead to a further institutional renewal of the Venezuelan state. Such an eventuality illustrates the potential impact, were it to happen. A recent decision bears witness to the government’s self-perceived weakness: regarding the election of the members of Parlatino, a relatively innocuous Latin American legislative body, Cabello decided to eliminate the elections for the new representatives despite a constitutional provision stating otherwise (they will be designated by the NA).

Were the winds of change to translate into a legislative defeat for the government, Venezuela would enter uncharted territory. One can anticipate three scenarios. The most negative shows the government achieving a close victory as a result of a change of mood in the electorate. As a result, the present stalemate would continue, even allowing for a tighter control of other parts of society, such as universities. A second scenario shows the opposition winning by a small margin and the government forced to accept the result. The stalemate would not be broken, but the government would be forced to the negotiating table, probably with international support. In the most optimistic scenario, the opposition wins handsomely, bringing about a substantial change in the balance of forces within the state. Were the opposition to play well its cards, the result could give way to a gradual re-democratization either through exercising a stronger role of checking and balancing the Executive or by an overhaul of the judiciary, the Ombudsman, the National Comptroller, or both. It could also become an opportunity for increasing international pressure to restore greater civility in a broken polity. Time seems to be running against the Bolivarian Revolution. The wild card, however, is the opposition’s disposition to remain united. If they break up, the government would win again.