"The painter -- the one who holds the brush, who mixes the colors, the artist -- is Hugo Chávez. If I hand over the brush, even to the person most dear to me, that person might begin to use other colors, because he has a different vision, and begin to alter the outline of the painting."
-- Hugo Chávez, 2007
All the signs indicate that the Hugo Chávez era is over. After more than two months of intensive care in a Havana hospital, and following his fourth operation for cancer in eighteen months, the Venezuelan president is now back in Caracas. Confined to a bed and unable to speak, thanks to a tracheotomy, he seems unlikely ever to resume his presidential duties, despite official assurances that he remains in charge. The outsized ego that dominated the country's politics for a decade and a half and that aspired to continental leadership is in the process of leaving the stage. Unable to conceive of life without power, he sacrificed the former for the latter. He leaves behind a political system adapted to satisfy the whims of one man, and an economy more dependent than ever on the international market price of a single commodity: oil. His departure threatens to shatter the illusion of stability that authoritarian rule invariably seeks to instill.
For most of its history, Venezuela has been ruled by men in uniform. For four decades, however, from 1958 to 1998, it maintained a civilian, two-party system which in its early years resisted attacks from both the militaristic right and Cuban-trained leftist guerrillas. At its height, this system was regarded by many as a model democracy. But by the end of the century its flaws had become more apparent. A significant decline in per capita oil revenue contributed to a dramatic increase in poverty and exclusion. Social and economic indicators were in long-term decline, while botched or incomplete political and economic reforms merely opened the door to the forces that would deliver the coup de grâce.
A mid-ranking army officer who had staged a failed coup in 1992, Chávez strode to power over the wreckage of the ancien régime. He was elected in 1998 as the embodiment of "anti-politics," the ultimate outsider. Explicitly committed to the dismantling of all existing institutions, he began by having the constitution rewritten and approved by referendum. To the three classical branches of government, Chávez added two more: An electoral authority and a "citizens' branch", consisting of an ombudsman, the public prosecutor, and a state auditor. Their autonomy, however, would soon be fatally undermined.
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In 2006, Chávez declared himself a radical socialist. Despite his evident nostalgia for Stalin and the Cold War era, and his umbilical ties to Castro's Cuba, he was careful to distinguish his "twenty-first century socialism" from the communism of the gulags. It was, he said, "humanistic." But he warned that, though peaceful, his "revolution" was armed and would not relinquish power to "the bourgeoisie." In fact, however, the leftist rhetoric and the increasingly frequent seizures of private property were less about ideology than the concentration of power.
Shortly after leaving jail in 1994, Chávez had made contact with an Argentine neo-fascist sociologist, the late Norberto Ceresole. Their relationship had ended by the time Chavez was elected, but it had a lasting effect. Ceresole was a proponent of what he called "post-democracy." Disdainful of parties and politicians (especially those around Chávez), he advocated rule by the triad of "strongman-army-people." The Venezuelan electorate, he said, had given Chávez an indefinite mandate.
In the hands of Hugo Chávez, the executive came to dominate not only the legislature (whose chavista majority never questioned presidential commands and several times granted him extensive powers by decree), but also the justice system, the electoral authority (CNE), and the "citizens' branch," too. The regime is avowedly "military-civilian," and around 2,000 active or retired military officers hold positions in the state bureaucracy. Half of the country's 23 states are run by former members of the armed forces (officially the "National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," or FANB). The high command swears public allegiance to the "revolution," in defiance of the constitution, as does a 125,000-strong militia.
During his last presidential campaign, Chávez spoke of "making the revolution irreversible." He envisioned that, by 2019, two-thirds of Venezuelans would live in "communes," defined as the building blocks of a socialist society. The "communal state" is an aspiration of the radical left faction of chavismo, to which Nicolás Maduro, Chavez's vice-president and anointed heir, belongs. It would run parallel to the "bourgeois" state (based on representative democracy and enshrined in the constitution), and would steadily appropriate more of its resources and powers.
Since Chávez disappeared from view, however, little has been heard of the communal state. There are more urgent matters to be resolved on the economic and political fronts. Moreover, chavismo has always been an uneasy alliance of the hard left, the purely pragmatic, and those who are more interested in wealth and power than revolution. Encouraged to believe, like Italians under Mussolini, that Il Duce ha sempre ragione (the leader is always right), will grass-roots chavistas now simply transfer their allegiance to Maduro? Or will a power struggle within the regime split chavismo and derail the revolution?
For now, there is every indication that the movement's disparate factions are being held together by the well-founded fear that internecine warfare would cause them to lose the impending presidential election. Before leaving for Havana in mid-December, Chávez unequivocally named Maduro as his political successor, declaring that he should be the candidate if a fresh presidential election were to be called. That left the civilian radicals around Maduro, including members of Chavez's immediate family (notably his brother Adán, governor of their home state of Barinas), in at least nominal control.
The all-important supreme court (TSJ), along with the citizens' branch of government, is dominated by individuals loyal to Maduro, whose most visible rival is former army lieutenant Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly (parliament) and vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Cabello was re-elected to his post in early January, but the Maduro faction holds the two vice-presidencies of parliament.