Venezuela also boasted one of the region’s most vibrant civil societies, with some of its freest and most vigorous media. With the exception of the Caracazo — a wave of protests against free-market reforms in 1989 that resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths — there were only minor bouts of repression.
To be sure, large swaths of Venezuelan society rightly felt excluded from the country’s cozy elite consensus and insular governing arrangements, and resented it immensely; but an aspiring middle class comprised roughly half the population. Chavez exploited — and widened — that division; indeed, as the current campaign to elect his successor shows, the country remains more polarized than ever.
It may well be that Chavez’s purported feats and popularity will outlast him. Instead of a simple rotation of elites in power, perhaps what occurred during his time in office was the advent of political leadership that looks, talks, worships and loves like the people of the country — leadership that identifies with and benefits the millions of Venezuelans who previously were marginalized. In that case, Chavez’s designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, will make short work of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the upcoming election. Chavismo will outlive Chavez.
However, whatever the outcome, all the mourning and embalming will not alter a simple fact: Venezuela and its people are not clearly better off than they were 14 years ago and whatever modest improvements they may feel in their lives were also secured elsewhere, at a far lower economic and political cost.
Jorge G. Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico, is professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate