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Analysis: Hugo Chavez saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
March 6, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo.

Hugo Chavez once remarked that he saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history. The same might be said for his impact in Latin America. Generalizing very broadly, the fourteen years of his tenure cover the same period when the region as a whole adopted an economic ethos of growth with social inclusion, a political consensus for democratic practice, and a posture in foreign policy of independence from the previous century's deference to the national security priorities of the United States. Chavez embraced each of these features of the new Latin America in extremis. His taste for the stage, for the inflammatory rhetoric, for provocation was out of sync with the region's preference for more practical problem-solving, to be sure. Historians working several decades from now will have more ample tools – documents, interviews, and hindsight to more deeply assess the Chavez legacy in the Americas. For now, a glance at his unfulfilled dreams and at those accomplishments he did realize suggest a legacy that might likewise be characterized as transitional.

In the realm of unfulfilled dreams, and this list is not comprehensive, most of the items would have required lots of money and the participation of many other countries in the region. In this category, we can include the Pipeline of the South, a $25 billion, five-thousand-mile expanse intended to bring oil from the Orinoco to Patagonia. Brazil objected. Even a slightly more modest idea, a pipeline to Cuba, never got off the ground. A South American Development Bank met a similar fate—inaugurated in 2009 this time with Brazil's rhetorical support, but in the end, no country, not even Venezuela itself, put up capital to launch the venture. Likewise, visions of continental-scale housing, highways and other investment stalled before they began.

The accomplishments: Chavez can take at least partial credit for helping to redefine South America's institutional architecture. MERCOSUR is a different beast than it was before Venezuela became a full member. Time will tell if Brazil's strategy on this front was a stroke of real politique wisdom or driven by sheer ideology. (I vote the former, as I have written on these pages.) Nor, contrary to conventional wisdom advanced by some observers, has Chavez blown up UNASUR, an institution that can take at least partial credit already for successful conflict prevention—think Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia. With respect to South America, even despite the bombastic display at summits—the 2005 Mar del Plata circus comes to mind—the pressure was on Chavez to play by the neighborhood's evolving rules, not the reverse.

ALBA, the nine-member association of quasi-sort-of-kind-of likeminded "Bolivarian" countries, is of course the big Chavez victory, one that might well give future Venezuelan presidents—whatever their political leanings—an ongoing influence in the Americas, especially the Caribbean. As yet we have no reliable public record, but it is safe to say that Caracas spent billions on ALBA development projects, especially those related to oil. Petrocaribe gave ALBA members plus five other participating countries in Central America and the Caribbean preferential pricing on Venezuelan oil imports, payable over 25 years at 1 percent interest. Whatever the impact in the form of political patronage, cash transfers from Venezuela's ALBA aid funds offset the budgets of central governments, producing direct benefits felt beyond political patronage--in the form of new roads, healthcare, and energy grids. After a visit to Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, for example, a former head of the United States Southern Command told me that he was surprised to see such tangible impact from Venezuela's largesse. Some odds and ends: Telesur, canceling Haiti's debt, financing many thousands of eye operations in ALBA countries carried out by Cuban doctors.

Two countries in Latin America stand out: Cuba and Colombia. Regardless of how one judges Uribe's prosecution of the counterinsurgency against the FARC, Chavez didn't make it any easier. Both chose polarization and crisis as their modus operandi. But Santos has shown how to use Colombia's geographic and commercial interdependence with Venezuela to benefit Colombia. And by enlisting Cuba to urge Chavez to push the FARC to the negotiating table, Santos demonstrated an acute understanding of the balance of power in the Havana-Caracas relationship.

Especially since 2004, when Chavez won the first post-coup referendum, the economic boost to Havana from Caracas has made a huge impact in Cuba: billions in subsidies, transfers and direct investment in energy, infrastructure, etc. Tens of thousands of Cuban advisors—health, sports, security, for which Havana was compensated in cash and credits, were essential, perhaps existential, in helping Chavez build and secure his political and institutional base. And Chavez took up Fidel's anti-imperial torch internationally, delighting in poking and provoking Washington and absorbing the radioactivity long reserved for Havana. When Fidel fell ill in 2006, the first photos we saw of him were with Chavez at his hospital bedside. But it is a mistake to conclude from the closeness of that relationship and the weight of Venezuelan economic assistance that Chavez exercised political or diplomatic leverage over Cuba.

If anything, the reverse is the case. I see the Cuba-Venezuela relationship in three distinct periods. The first comes prior to Chavez' tenure in power and dates back to the post-1959 flight of Batista-era Cuban security and military officers to exile in Caracas, where they worked for the CIA and with Venezuelan counterparts as a rearguard during the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose. That deeper and still untold history is essential to understanding the significance of the second period. That second phase began when Colonel Chavez failed in his 1992 coup attempt but vowing one day to return, flew to Havana, where he and Fidel launched their strategic relationship. Phase three came into focus in 2002 with the weekend coup attempt against Chavez himself, consolidating after 2004, when Havana played a very significant role not only by staffing the misiones but in pressing and helping Chavez to institutionalize and consolidate his power in a variety of ways. While the economic benefits to Cuba remain vast, Havana's influence over Caracas under Chavez should not be underestimated.

And phase four? Chavez' successors—in his own party, or should Henrique Capriles somehow win a new presidential election in the near term—won't quickly undo the layers of bilateral and regional togetherness. Venezuela's poor, to whom the opposition now understands it must appeal, derive direct benefits from the misiones, which would not be possible without Cuba. Will ALBA and Petrocaribe unravel after Chavez? Also, not immediately, which for Cuba again means even a modified status quo can be reliably expected for the near to medium term. Contrary to the clichés, Cuba never put all of its strategic eggs in Chavez's basket. Havana pointedly pursuing trade, investment, lines of credit with Canada, Brazil, China, Spain, Russia, and the EU. After the learning the lessons of excessive dependence on Spain, the United States and later the Soviet Union, Fidel and Raul likewise recognized that Hugo Chavez was to be a transitional figure in Venezuelan history.

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