Chavez no Bolivar but Maduro no Chavez: Venezuela crisis intensifies

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader, liked to think of himself as a modern-day Simon Bolivar. Proclaiming his social and economic reforms the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, Chavez reveled in his populist image as a fighter against Western imperialism and elitism, a stance almost as heroic as Bolivar’s 19th century republicanism in opposition to the Spanish Crown.

Chavez sitting before a portrait of his hero, Simon Bolivar
Chavez sitting before a portrait of his hero, Simon Bolivar

That Chavez could make a creditable comparison between himself and the independence genius of South America was a result of his personal charisma, state-sponsored propaganda and populist policies, such as insanely low fuel prices. Only towards the end of his rule did the obvious economic damage of his ‘revolution’ become apparent to the majority. With one of the highest murder rates in the world, declining food security and political stagnation, Venezuela is becoming a failed state. Only Chavez’s ability to command the good faith of the people prevented a government overthrow.

His successor Nicolas Maduro, however, does not share his popular appeal. Indeed, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), rather than being seen as the protector of the common man, is now identified as his chief problem. Violent protests have pockmarked the streets of Caracas and other cities, leading to complaints from regional governors about police brutality and government incompetence. 

Protesters have filled the streets of Caracas
Protesters have filled the streets of Caracas

Whilst Chavez was no Bolivar, people miss his ability to command a degree of order, his belligerence against American interference in the affairs of Latin America and his sweeping gestures of support for the people.

Maduro has the potential to reverse the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of his mentor and precipitate intervention from a foreign power that would undermine the independence and sovereign integrity that Simon Bolivar won for Venezuela with such ruthless determination. It is his choice whether to precipitate further bloodshed.

Chavez and Bolivar: an appropriate comparison?

Hugo Chavez, who has won a fourth term as Venezuela’s president, likes to think of himself as a liberator of the people. He deplores autocracy and supports “democratic socialism” just, as he claims, did his hero, 19th century South American independence stalwart Simon Bolivar. Bolivar was indeed an anti-royalist, tired of the Spanish Catholic monarchy’s autocratic grip on their by then centuries-old colonies. This arch-republican is widely credited with bringing independence to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and, of course, Venezuela.

It is little wonder then that Chavez seeks to compare himself with Bolivar, a man revered as a founding farther of a continent, not just a nation. You might think Chavez is being a little bold likening himself to this semi-legendary figure. After all, his regime is one mired by corruption and inequality and the so-called “man of the people” has stood by whilst the highest murder rate in the world spirals out of control in his capital Caracas and impoverished shanty towns spring up on a monthly bases in geologically unstable locations. Perhaps the defining reason people may see Chavez’s comparison of himself to Bolivar as laughable is because, to all intents and purposes, he is an autocrat.

Caracas’ sprawling favelas bely Chavez’s claims of “democratic socialism”

His rule is populist, often governing by decree rather than via a formulated, consultative policymaking process; he is not afraid to call upon the army to subdue domestic disturbances; opposition newspapers are censored, activists murdered by his thuggish followers. Surely he cannot be comparable to that republican libertarian Bolivar?

Wrong. As he came to realise that the stability brought by strong, monarchical rule was disintegrating rapidly in his newly-founded independent states, Bolivar sought a new authoritarian approach to preserve his republican dream and, importantly, his position as lead statesmen. In drawing up a constitution for Bolivia in 1826 he gave presidents the right to rule for life and the power to name their own successor, given that elections are “the greatest scourge of republics and bring only anarchy”. When autocracy failed, Bolivar flinched. The new nation of Gran Colombia he had founded disintegrated, with Ecuador and Venezuela (ironically) breaking ties with the capital, Bogota. Bolivar decided to flee to Europe, labelling South America as “ungovernable”, before dying before he could even begin his boat journey.

It is lucky for Bolivar that the simultaneous decline of the Spanish monarchy meant the South American republics survived and preserved his legacy.

Bolivar struggled to reconcile the relationship between republicanism and autocracy

A man with aspirations for a genuine “people’s republic”, subsequently driven to autocracy by the failure of his Utopian vision and the desire to stay in power. Hugo Chavez may indeed be compared to Simon Bolivar. Whether he will share his hero’s fate, only time will tell.