People walk past a mural depicting Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP)
It looks as if Hugo Chávez’s end is near. This is unquestionably to his advantage. He will go down in Venezuelan history, and in all of Latin America, as a martyr. Like his idol Simón Bolívar, his place in history, beyond the endless controversies that have always surrounded him — or maybe because of them – is assured.
President Chávez won’t make it back to Venezuela from Cuba, where he flew last month for cancer treatment, in time for his scheduled swearing-in on Thursday. In fact, it’s possible that he will never make it back at all.
Though rumors are swirling online, we don’t really know just how sick Chávez is, only that after repeated cancer surgery, he is now being treated for a severe respiratory infection. The Venezuelan government has refused to disclose what kind of cancer Chávez has, how it’s being treated or whether he is likely to survive. But he’s far from gone. His semblance is ubiquitous, especially in Caracas, where he’s been an icon for almost a decade and a half.
His supporters insist that it doesn’t matter whether he is sworn in on Thursday — that’s a “formality,” according to Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor. But the opposition insists that the country’s constitution is unequivocal: An elected president must be sworn in 30 days after his election, or else the speaker of the National Assembly assumes the reins of power.
Since he first came to office in 1999, Chávez, now 58, has been known as the region’s larger-than-life líder, a left-leaning politician devoted to helping the poor in his country and all over Latin America. No matter what happens to him — and to his country, if the looming constitutional crisis erupts — his absence from power, along with Fidel Castro’s in Cuba, marks the end of an era. It’s an opportune moment to look at how Latin America’s political situation has — and has not — changed.
In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, among other places, socialists, some of whom were active in their youth in guerrilla groups, have been in power for some time. Chávez gets far more attention than these other socialist leaders. He is frequently demonized in America media — no surprise, since his speeches frequently portray the United States as a world-class bully, something most Latin Americans agree with. And under his rule, Venezuela has indeed suffered some serious problems: The nation’s crime rate is now the worst in the world, and Chávez’s nationalization of entire industries caused astronomical losses.
But despite these real issues — and despite specialists’ dire predictions that socialism would cause Latin American economies to collapse — Chávez, like other leftist leaders, has achieved some real gains. Socialist governments have improved health and education levels. Birth rates have never been lower. Foreign investment has soared in Brazil and Peru, where the economy has grown at a much faster rate than in Europe, Japan and the United States. And the middle class is expanding. In fact, the world’s recession has barely made a dent in the region. Far from collapsing, Latin American economies are more vigorous than ever.
And then there’s perhaps the biggest change of all: All of these leaders, Chávez included, were legally elected into office. From Mexico to Chile, political parties of every persuasion have flourished in the last 20 years, supporting causes like the environment, women’s rights and indigenous cultures. In a shift that was almost unimaginable under Pinochet or Peron, vigorous democratic debate is now the norm.
It’s a striking change from the days when Latin America was compared, in the level and style of its political participation, to the Arab world. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, we can see how misguided that comparison was. The longstanding tyrants of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries may have been toppled by popular uprisings, but the consequences of those turnovers, so far at least, are disappointing.
In Latin America, meanwhile, the voting booth stands firmly at the center of political life. Even in Venezuela, where the word chavismo is a synonym for intolerance, the opposition, led by Henrique Capriles, is strong.
The depth of Latin America’s democracy will be tested broadly once Chávez is out for good. Before he left for Cuba, he urged his supporters to rally behind Maduro, and the vice president remains the likely successor if Chávez does not return. But Maduro lacks charisma, let alone vision — the very political assets that helped Chávez maintain power.
And without Chávez (or a strong successor), other countries in the region face renewed perils. Both Bolivia and Ecuador have close ties with the current leadership, and the Cuban economy depends on Venezuelan oil and other cheap imports.
Still, I’m optimistic that chaos will not prevail. Latin America used to depend on dictators for its stability. People now realize that’s a thing of the past.
As for Chávez, if he does succumb to his illness, he’ll leave the stage as the height of his power. His impact will be felt for a long time to come, with people interpreting his legacy as a suspended dream. Even at this dire moment and for the foreseeable future, el líder is in control.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.