In the nature and the suffering of what may be his impending death, Hugo Chavez will probably achieve the immortality in human memory that he has always sought, the certainty of a veneration reserved for saints, martyrs and redeemers.
The images appearing in the streets of Venezuela leave no doubt about it. They don’t compare Chavez to Simon Bolivar – the inspiration of the nation’s “comandante” – but to Jesus Christ. And there are explicit slogans displayed that go further and deeper into Venezuelan reality: “The people are Chavez” and “We are all Chavez” – like some modern miracle of transubstantiation.
It is possible that the ruling government of Cuba (where the Venezuelan is in hospital) may try to preserve the authority of a moribund Chavez, like the famous Spanish Cid Campeador, whose body – strapped to his horse – led troops in a victorious battle. But it is much more likely that, after a protracted and agonising struggle with cancer, Chavez’s death will be announced.
And a broad portion of the Venezuelan people will be plunged into mourning. Something similar happened in the case of Eva Peron, the heroine of the Argentine poor, when she died suddenly of cancer at 33. She was instantly sanctified and continues to be so.
There are various scenarios for the future of Venezuela, and none of them is certain. It is most likely that the mourning for Chavez will last for months and will be followed by a new national election, which will be won by a “Chavista” candidate, a supporter of Chavez.
The decisive emotions will be grief coupled with the gratitude that many Venezuelans, especially the poor, feel for Chavez and his social policies. And the electoral, financial judicial and partly legislative organs of the state will continue to be controlled by the Chavista movement. The favoured candidate would be Nicolas Maduro, already anointed by Chavez.
In the period of mourning, Venezuela will live with the fiction of “Chavismo without Chavez”. His portrait in his days of glory, his empty presidential chair, his televised image will be retransmitted and, for a time, will continue to accompany the new president.
But for all religions, sacred and secular, and for the very nature of humanity, mourning always comes to an end. And all Venezuelans – Chavistas and non-Chavistas – will awaken to a severe economic predicament that can’t be ignored. It happened in the Soviet Union in 1989. It will definitely happen in Cuba. It will happen in Venezuela.
The evidence is in the public domain, and it is alarming. The Venezuelan economy shows a deficit of $70 billion (R629bn), 22 percent of gross domestic product. The official monetary exchange rate is 4.3 bolivars (R8.98) to the dollar, but on the black market it is 18 bolivars.
For years, the inflation rate has been the highest in the region. Domestic shortages have become almost a tradition in Venezuela, due to the dismantling of industry, agriculture, animal husbandry (practically all productive activities except petroleum extraction), the exodus of many middle-class professionals and the lack of private investment, internal or external.
Only in 2012 was there an improvement in the continual shortages of many goods and services, but at an extremely high cost, when the Chavez government purchased all sorts of products to grease the votes of its partisans. Venezuela is now suffering an acute shortage of available cash. How can an economy be in such a grave condition when Venezuela has registered more than $800bn in oil sales?
Much of the explanation lies in the handling of all this oil. In 1998, Venezuela was producing 3.3 million barrels of oil a day. The country was exporting 2.7 million barrels a day and reaping the profits. Production has now fallen to 2.4 million, and only 900 000 barrels – exported daily to the US (the hated “empire”) – is now directly paid for.
With the rest: About 800 000 barrels are consumed internally (so cheaply as to be almost free, and stimulating a lucrative black-market trade in illegal exports); 300 000 go directly to China, as payment for products and the repayment of loans; 100 000 barrels are allocated for the importation of petrol; and 300 000 to various Caribbean countries that pay (when they do pay) at huge discounts and very protracted terms of payment.
Or they pay – like Cuba, which receives 100 000 barrels daily – with a supply of medical, educational and police personnel. (Cuba benefits so amply from Venezuelan oil that it actually exports some of its received supplies.) Venezuelan oil profits have shrunk by a third since the Chavez government came to power.
Amid the mourning for Chavez, or immediately afterward, a Chavista president will have to confront this reality and explain it to the Venezuelan people. But this president won’t be Chavez himself, the hypnotic Chavez, Chavez the magician, Chavez the leader who used to explain everything, justify and muffle everything.
It is likely that the reaction will be the typical one within Latin American political culture. The people will react with indignation. They will blame the Chavista government for not being at the level of their former leader and representative. They will say that Chavez wouldn’t have permitted this, Chavez would have prevented it. It will be the end of “Chavismo without Chavez”. And a great opportunity for the opposition.
In the last election, the Venezuelan opposition, after long years of errors and inconsistencies, united among themselves and chose an intelligent and courageous leader in Henrique Capriles. He lost to Chavez but did very well, winning almost 7 million votes.
During Chavez’s physical decline and suffering, the opposition has continued to be critical of the government yet has also showed a noteworthy prudence. And it has done well to do so. Any overflow of vindictive or triumphant passions would be taken as a provocation and lead directly to violence.
If the opposition, after so much time, preserves its cohesion and energy, it could show further gains in the next national elections and recoup its losses, especially once the period of mourning has ended. And this awakening could well be supported by a force of protest that has now somewhat waned but remains latent, that of the Venezuelan students who played a crucial role in defeating a 2007 referendum that would have openly converted Venezuela to the Cuban model of government.
At stake is not only the economic recuperation of a country that has an ocean of largely wasted oil, but the normalisation of democracy, which has been sequestered for almost 14 years by Chavez’s policies of political “redemption”. At stake is the fundamental possibility of contentious groups living together in a society that has been torn apart by discord, intolerance and a propaganda of hatred, by a devotion to an absolute binomial: friend versus enemy.
Few Latin-American governments have shown such devotion to this distinction. Once the mourning for Chavez has ended, it would be best if this distinction were to vanish from the political scene. Only then can Venezuelans arrive at reconciliation.
Enrique Krauze is a historian and author of Mexico: A Biography of Power and of Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.