But at home in Venezuela, “Chavismo” will probably remain alive as the biggest political force for generations to come. Because Chávez’s years in power coincided with the biggest oil boom in Venezuela’s recent history, and because Chávez gave away so much money to the poor, he is more likely to be remembered as a “champion of the poor” than as the populist who destroyed the country’s private sector, scared away investments, and turned Venezuela more oil-dependent than ever.
From now on, much like happened in Argentina after Perón’s death, most presidential hopefuls will declare themselves “Chavistas,” even if they despised the late military coup plotter-turned-president.
And much like happened in Argentina in recent decades, we will see “Chavista” politicians of all colors: radical leftists, moderate, centrist and rightists. In his never-ending speeches, which sometimes lasted more than six hours, they will find enough memorable quotes to support almost any political theory.
Guillermo Lousteau, a professor at Florida International University who heads the Inter-American Institute of Democracy, believes that Chávez will go down in history not so much like Perón, but like Ernesto “Che” Guevara — a cult figure whose influence today is more romantic than political.
“Chávez will become a cultural icon: we will see T-shirts with Chávez’s face, much like we see T-shirts with Che Guevara’s face, but his influence won’t go farther than that,” Lousteau told me.
“Chávez is no longer alive to keep the Chavista movement united, like Perón was after he was thrown out of office,” Lousteau said. “Without a charismatic leader, and with a deteriorating economy, Chavismo will implode.”
My opinion: Latin America’s political cycles tend to change every dozen years, and Chávez’s death — alongside stagnant commodity prices — is likely to accelerate the waning days of Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” in Latin America.
Much like we had military dictatorships in the 1970s, social-democracies in the 1980s, pro-free market governments in the 1990s’, and “Chavismo” in the 2000s, we may be entering a new decade of something different — hopefully democratic pragmatism.
But Chávez’s undeserved image as the region’s biggest champion of the poor — in fact, countries like Peru and Chile reduced poverty more than Venezuela in recent years, and without weakening their democracies — will have a lasting negative impact on Venezuela. As often happens in commodity-rich countries, populist leaders thrive during booms in world commodity booms. Then, when commodity prices go down and they leave office — whether they are thrown out or, as in Chávez’s case, die in office — their successors have to take unpopular economic measures, and the former populist leaders’ followers can say, “You were better off when we were in power.”
Venezuela will be no exception to Latin America’s commodity curse. Chávez’s populism will remain popular for decades. It will take a lot of time — and education — to convince many Venezuelans that Chavismo was “bread for today, hunger for tomorrow,’’ and that the most successful countries are those that have strong institutions, rather than strong men.