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After Chavez, What's Next For Venezuela


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary.

And as I've just mentioned, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday. He led his country for 14 years. A passionate defender of the poor, Chavez had closed ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro, but alienated the United States with his socialist agenda. His politics reverberated throughout the region.

If you have any questions about the politics of Venezuela, give us a call. The number here is 800-989-8255. The email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining me now to talk about the legacy of President Hugo Chavez is Julia Sweig. She is a senior fellow and director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote a piece with The Atlantic last month called "What Hugo Chavez Built: The Legacy of Latin-American 'Chavismo.'" She joins us by phone from Calistoga, California. Good to have with you, Julia.

JULIA SWEIG: Great to be here, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Now, in that piece in The Atlantic, you said that early in his presidency, Chavez remarked that he saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history. What did he mean by that, a transitional figure?

SWEIG: Well, what I surmised at that time, that he meant, is that his objectives in Venezuela to really overhaul the political and economic status quo would require a very long time, and that there was no possibility that one person alone could accomplish his very, very ambitious goals, that the Venezuela he inherited from the ancien regime, if you will, had deep, deep social and political and economic cleavages. And that to redress those, he was but a flicker on the historical screen. I'm not sure, 10 years later, he would have described himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history, but I actually see him that way as well.

NEARY: Now, he had a very strong political and very personal relationship with Cuba's Fidel Castro. Tell us about that.

SWEIG: Yes, he absolutely did, and it goes back to the early 1990s. In 1992, after Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez staged a failed coup himself, he traveled to Cuba and he developed there, with Fidel, a very close and long-standing strategic conversation and then political relationship once he took power in 1999. Fidel Castro, to my mind, saw in Chavez a way to prolong his own legacy and ambition in Latin America as an anti-imperialist, as a revolutionary, albeit in a very different context than when Fidel himself took up that mantle in the 1960s. And they really had a mind meld, of sorts, if you wish, which continued up until, I'm sure, their last goodbye, last week, before Chavez returned from Havana.

NEARY: And, of course, Hugo Chavez was able to funnel a lot of help into Cuba, a lot of financial help into Cuba.

SWEIG: Yes, he did. The relationship was an enormous benefit to Cuba in that regard. After 1989, the Cubans lost their Soviet subsidy. They went for a decade of very, very severe economic crisis. But as the political, diplomatic relationship deepened, especially after 2002, the economic financial relationship also blossomed. And it wasn't just in the Caracas-Havana direction, although the subsidized oil programs, the barter, the investment that, you know, almost zero-financing, zero-interest investment by Chavez in Cuba was enormous. But Cuba's investment in Venezuela was likewise essential, I think, to Chavez consolidating his political domination - dominance in the country.

So it wasn't just the advisers who were providing medical care to poor Venezuelans who had never had it or barely had it, not just the sports, not just the culture, not just the capacity building, but it was strategic advice about how to consolidate power, how to build the institutions of Chavismo, that we'll now be able to see how long-lasting they were.

NEARY: Well, what were his relations like with the rest of Latin America and South America? I imagine there's a variety there. But give us a sense of how he was viewed.

SWEIG: You know, I think it's useful to - so Chavez, in a way, as Fidel had in the past, took up the mantle of sort of representing the David challenging Washington's Goliath. And in Latin America, the first decade of this century, we saw, not only in Venezuela, but we saw in a number of countries - in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Nicaragua - of a very different stripe. In Brazil and Argentina, we saw what is, you know, could be loosely understood as a left, center-left - sometimes populist, sometimes not - ethos dominate politics and elect politicians.

Chavez was controversial, even within those countries that I just mentioned, but he also had very, very high symbolic value because he tried to make the case that Latin America no longer needed Washington, could act on its own accord, could have an independent foreign policy, could organize its economies in defiance sometimes of what was called the Washington consensus, could build its own destiny without having to ask permission first. And that's a very, very resonant message that Chavez embodied.

But at the same time, not only was he polarizing domestically, he also was within the region. And he was very - I would use the word - presumptuous and assuming that this Bolivarian revolutionary model that he had for Venezuela and that he saw for especially the Andean region would be accepted universally, and it was not.

It was largely pushed back against, while at the same time, heads of state like Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, before her, Lula in Brazil sort of found a way to appreciate Chavez without - but also erecting some constraints to his ability to mobilize and polarize the region.

NEARY: You just used the phrase Bolivarian revolutionary model. Maybe you can explain that. What did he - what is...

SWEIG: If I can tell you what that is, I mean - so Simon Bolivar was the liberator of Latin America in the 19th century, and he had a vision for a unified, integrated, South America. Chavez sees - saw himself as taking up the mantle of unification, now not against Spain, but against Washington, D.C. and American imperialism.

So there's a foreign policy dimension in this vision of a unified South America, a grouping of countries that would help one another advance economically and socially, of course, subsidized by Venezuelan oil, but also an economic model that kind of goes along with it. In that, Venezuela is very much its own case, because what you see in the rest of Latin America - even among left leaders - is, by and large, an embrace of macroeconomic stability, fiscal probity, keeping inflation down, very, very cautious with spending.

Whereas in Venezuela, you see just the opposite: wild spending of oil revenues, very, very inflationary, economic mismanagement. So the foreign policy dimension of Bolivarianism means unity, and the economic dimension of it means whatever your domestic political base will handle, which in Venezuela, was far different than in the other countries of the region.

NEARY: Although the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela under Chavez was seen as pretty antagonistic, he didn't really come into power as stridently anti-American, did he?

SWEIG: No, he did not. And I think we can really divide that - or look to the year 2002 as the point after which he did become a great deal more anti-American. In the early years, 1990 - end of '98 through about 2001, mid-2001, there was a play back and forth - first under Bill Clinton, and then in the early years of George Bush - in which Washington was trying to figure out if this was a leftist that we could live with, so to speak. And Chavez was trying to create a little bit of distance. But also, you have to remember, we have now and we had then a very extensive commercial relationship around oil.

We had Venezuelans in our military schools. We had lots of exchanges of officers. We had a very longstanding and institutionally intricate and integrated relationship with Venezuela, and Chavez was not, in the beginning, intending to rupture those ties. But in 2002, in April, there was a briefly lasting weekend coup that was organized against Chavez with some right-wing business types, some in the military, a sort of loose coalition of people who saw Chavez early on as an incredible threat to their particular interest.

And although Washington didn't organize the coup, it very quickly, on the day of the coup, came out with statements that pretty much sounded like ding-dong, the witch is dead, welcoming the new government, not calling it a coup, but saying that this was an interruption in the constitutional order, but appearing to give tea and sympathy to its organizers. And that really marks the beginning of the deterioration in the bilateral relationship.

NEARY: And we're talking with Julia Sweig. She's the author of "What Hugo Chavez Built: The Legacy of Latin American Chavismo," and she wrote that for The Atlantic. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

We're going to take a call now from Paul. Paul is calling from San Francisco. Hi, Paul.

PAUL: Yeah. Hi. My question is the following: You know, Chavez is - was a very charismatic leader. And why weren't they able to find anybody else in his party to take his place as a successor that comes a little bit close to the man's ability to connect with the people on an emotional and ideological basis?

SWEIG: Paul, are you asking why he has not - why there is nobody that has the charismatic chops that he had?

PAUL: That's right. Because the vice president, his chosen successor, just seemed a little bit - I don't know. He just doesn't seem he like has it, he's going to be able to rally the people and continue this revolution.

SWEIG: Oh, I think you put your finger on, of course, the big drama to now watch unfold. Maduro, who is the vice president, will presumably run for office on the top of the Chavista ticket one month from now against the man Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez last year, but not - didn't do so badly.

This is the issue: Who will keep Chavismo unified? And I think there is no good answer to that. There will - and I also don't have a lot of insight into where the personalities might come from other than Maduro to keep that coalition together. He will work on it.

PAUL: Do you think it's possible...

SWEIG: What?

PAUL: Do you think it's possible that these ideas 10 years from now will still be on the table domestically in Venezuela, or just essentially over? Thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Thanks, Paul. Thanks for calling.

SWEIG: Lynn, should I answer that?

NEARY: Yes, go ahead.

SWEIG: I don't think it's over. I think you're going to see a lot of talk about Chavismo without Chavez - that is, that roughly a third of Venezuela's 30 million people love and adore and will grieve his absence, because he made them visible, as opposed to invisible. Because he not only helped them put food on their table or a roof over their head - albeit, poverty, by some counts, is worse than it was when he came into power. The material benefits aside, he gave them pride and self-esteem that they had not felt from the previous status quo.

And I don't think it's possible to put that back in a drawer and just close the drawer. I think he has forever left his mark and given sort of - you know, makes an open question about who can inherit it, but he was around for a long enough time that returning to the previous order is hard for me to imagine.

NEARY: You know, but I'm wondering, now that he is such a dynamic, charismatic and flamboyant figure who, as you said, you know, inspired great love in a large portion of the population of Venezuela, among the poor on Venezuela, and yet in his death, if there is a kind of leadership vacuum, won't some of the mistakes he made - won't the fact that he, maybe in the end, didn't help the poor as much as he might have wanted to or spoken about, won't all of that become more obvious?

SWEIG: Absolutely. And it has started to become more obvious in the last couple of years. And frankly, you know, he - one could make the argument that the economic mismanagement, the pilfering of the oil revenues - Venezuela is, I think, the fourth - has the fourth-largest store of oil in the world - that the damage to the economy, and the inflationary spending, the crumbling of the infrastructure, the excessive dependence on oil - Venezuela is more dependent on oil than it was when he took office - that all of that, in fact, will undermine the very people that he wished to help.

So it's an open question, but I think that the - that there is no - there's no clarity to me about whether what he wrought can be sustained, because a piece of what he wrought was also a lot of damage. And that just is a matter of time to show who and how it can be undone.

NEARY: So how will he be remembered in the end, do you think?

SWEIG: Oh, the answer is in the eye of the beholder, of course, like everything. But I think he will be remembered as a complicated illusionist. The word illusionist doesn't come from me. It comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who traveled with him on his way to his first Inauguration in 1999 from Havana to Caracas, and who described him as an idealist, an illusionist and somebody - leaving (unintelligible) now - somebody whose ideals, as worthy as they were, also carried with them the seed of their own demise.

NEARY: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Julia.

SWEIG: Thanks for having me, Lynn.

NEARY: Julia Sweig is senior fellow and director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and she joined us from Calistoga, California. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.