U.S. News & World Report

Racial Politics and Hugo Chavez’s Failed Socialist Legacy


Former Senior Fellow

Hugo Chavez's death this week has inspired a range of polarized commentary on his legacy after fourteen tumultuous years as president of Venezuela. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil wrote a glowing column on Chavez's championing of social justice for the Latin American poor, while ignoring his suppression of human rights and press freedom, his broad and sustained attacks on civil society (including independent labor unions), the exponential rise in the murder rates and violence, and the long term damage his policies have done to the Venezuelan economy. His critics have pointed to the decline in macro-economic indicators: state debt has steeply risen, inflation is at 22 percent, private businesses have been expropriated, private property nationalized, and the Venezuelan currency has been devalued three times in 10 years. 

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum described in her column the destructive and malevolent influence of Chavez on an entire generation of Venezuelans who opposed his policies and his despotic rule, many of whom have been driven into exile. But little has been written in the United States about why he rose to power and why he was able to sustain his support among the Venezuelan poor and working classes, even with his suppression of individual freedom and his mismanagement of the economy and public services.

Woven through Chavez's endless speeches and diatribes against capitalism and the United States and his socialist ideology are references to the racial divisions in Latin American society. Chavez himself claimed to be of racially mixed ancestry——Spanish, black, and Indian blood——which he used to appeal to the legitimate grievances of the poor of Indian, black, or mixed ancestry. Race determines social class in Latin America more than any other single factor. Two Latin Americas exist side by side on the same continent: a westernized white middle and upper class elite of European ancestry juxtaposed against a poor and working class of black and indigenous Indian populations. The demographics——education levels, living standards, child and maternal mortality rates, and family income——of the white population in Latin America resemble those of first world countries, while the demographic profile of the Indian, black, and mixed races is that of poor developing countries. Many of the civil conflicts in Latin America over the past several decades have pitted the indigenous Indian population, many of whom speak their own languages and not Spanish, against the white elite-controlled governments which they have seen as excluding them from political power.

Chavez skillfully appealed to these racial divisions and the disparities in standards of living and human development to build his movement inside Venezuela. In the preamble to Chavez's 1999 constitution it declares Venezuela to be "a multiethnic and multicultural society" which guarantees equal access to public services, jobs, and justice without discrimination. In 2005 he created the Presidential Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination in the Venezuelan education system to deal with unequal access to public education, and he created Afro-Venezuelan Day. His appeals were accompanied by a reduction of the number of extreme poverty from 23 percent of the population to 9 percent. He reduced unemployment among his followers by expanding public sector employment massively, but also unsustainably: The employees of the state-owned oil company (which produces the revenue for Chavez to subsidize his supporters) doubled in 10 years while oil production has declined by 13 percent because investment in preventative maintenance has steeply declined. Thus Chavez is strangling the petro-goose that laid the golden egg and the goose is producing fewer eggs. The redistributive benefits to the poor will eventually evaporate, leaving Chavez successors to clean up the mess.

All this has guaranteed the devotion at the ballot box of the long-neglected Venezuelan poor to his Bolivar revolution. Chavez tried to extend his racial and ideological revolution in Venezuela to other Latin American countries using oil money to subsidize the campaigns of indigenous candidates sympathetic to his revolution. But his plans did not all turn out as he expected.

After Chavez's election in Venezuela, two political figures of indigenous race were elected to the presidency of their countries for the first time in history: Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006-present) and Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) in Peru. These two men embody the very different routes the racial revolution in Latin America is taking. Morales is an Aymara-speaking Indian and Toledo a Quechuan-speaking Indian (Inca), but they were of radically different political ideologies. Until the past decade none of the three countries in Latin America with the largest Indian and black populations——Peru, Guatemala, and Bolivia——had produced an indigenous head of state, despite the fact that they make up a majority or large plurality of the population. Both Morales and Toledo used their indigenous support to get elected and govern. Morales, a close ideological ally of Chavez, nationalized private businesses, damaging foreign investment and economic growth in Bolivia. Toledo, who was no ally of Chavez, was a Ph.D. economist educated at Stanford University who worked at the World Bank and took a free market approach to economic growth. He negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States and encouraged private investment, policies which Chavez attacked across Latin America. Toledo left office with Peru's economy growing at 6 percent annually. Toledo did not suppress civil society, intimidate the media, or undermine human rights and the rule of law the way Chavez did in Venezuela, but he did antagonize the traditional white elites in Peru because of his reform agenda which decentralized power from the capital to the provinces and localities where the indigenous population would have more control over government budgets, public services, and political power. Chavez may have started the racial revolution in Latin America, but he has been unable to control how it will manifest itself in other countries.

Chavez may be most remembered in the United States for his alliance with Cuba and his friendship with Fidel Castro. Ironically, the relationship between the two men and the two countries may embody Chavez's ultimate legacy. Chavez succeeded in mobilizing the black and Indian population of Venezuela and in some parts of Latin America, an effort at which Castro failed. It was Fidel Castro who sent Che Guevara to lead a peasant uprising among the Indian population in rural Bolivia, only to end in Che's capture and execution. The Indian villagers proved too conservative and resisted the revolutionary Marxist message, perhaps because of Guevara's arrogant manner, which alienated the local Communist party leadership. Guevara complained in his diary that the "the peasants do not give us any help and are turning into informants."

While Chavez successfully used race to mobilize the poor, the failed socialist ideology he has employed to end injustice has been a grand failure in the 20th century and has left terrible human wreckage in its wake. The best source on the failure of socialism is none other than Chavez's mentor and hero, Fidel Castro, who in an interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic admitted that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." Fidel's brother Raul, who is now running the Cuban government, has admitted in an interview that Cuba can no longer blame the U.S. embargo for the failures in their economic system. It has been Venezuelan oil which has kept the sclerotic Cuban economy afloat, just as Soviet subsidies did during the cold war. Raul Castro has been slowly implementing many Chinese-style economic reforms, which is a tacit admission of the failure of the grand Cuban experiment. Several weeks ago Raul Castro named his successor when he retires in 2018, a man who is a quiet pragmatist more interested in what works than in failed Marxist ideology. Cuba, which was the model for the Bolivarist revolution in Venezuela, appears to be ideologically abandoning Hugo Chavez just as his chaotic and despotic rule ends with his death. It remains to be seen whether Venezuela will now change course and return to democratic pluralism and a free market economic system; if it does, it might be wise for the middle and upper class white elites to acknowledge that the old order that kept them prosperous did little to improve the lives of the black, Indian, and mixed race poor.