BY SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL
The most surprising thing about President Hugo Chavez’s decision to nationalize several private companies in “strategic” economic sectors is that so many people were surprised by his decision. Given the Venezuelan president’s behavior over the past six years, the inevitable question is why anyone should have been surprised.
Since winning the presidency in 1998, President Chávez has been using both his democratic mandate and democratic processes to centralize political and economic power in his hands. At the time of his recent announcement, he controlled the congress, the Supreme Court and PDVSA, the state oil company that he had nationalized and restaffed with individuals loyal to the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez had also strongly aligned himself with Fidel Castro and the goals of the Cuban Revolution and, together with Fidel, had been helping President Evo Morales to follow his footsteps in using democratic means to achieve undemocratic ends in Bolivia.
The move toward authoritarian government in Venezuela was greatly facilitated by soaring energy prices which gave Chávez access to billions of dollars to distribute among his political cronies, including members of the restructured military, as well as members of Venezuela’s very large lower class. The latter, in particular, rewarded him at the ballot box, no doubt causing many people to downplay Chávez’s authoritarian behavior with the excuse that he had been democratically elected.
This misunderstanding of what Chávez was all about was reflected in the tendency of many observers to speak of Latin America’s “turn to the left,” putting Chávez in the same group as presidents Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay and Inácio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil. More recently, analysts have begun distinguishing between democratically-elected presidents who behave democratically once in office, such as those named above, and those who belong to Latin America’s authoritarian “caudillo” tradition, such as Hugo Chávez.
This more accurate characterization of the nature of the Venezuelan president and his government should have prepared people for the recently announced nationalizations, as well as Chávez’s plans to rule increasingly by decree. The fact that it didn’t may reflect the power of wishful thinking. Many people apparently believed that the Venezuelan president had no need to take these steps, since he already had the best of all worlds: a great deal of power concentrated in his hands combined with democratic legitimacy to use it. Other peoples’ views of what constitutes “enough power,” however, do not necessarily reflect the needs of a ruler who sees himself as a global revolutionary hero — the heir to Fidel Castro — who is destined for greatness and an important place in the history of the 21st century.
Some people who were caught by surprise also probably believed that the Venezuelan president would only move against individuals and companies that had resisted or opposed his earlier actions. Still others, who understood the trend toward economic and political concentration of power in Venezuela, nevertheless believed that the fairly slow, deliberate pace of earlier revolutionary reforms would continue to be the norm.
The problem with such thinking is that an elected revolutionary has more initial societal constraints to his plans to concentrate power in his hands than does a revolutionary who achieves power through an armed insurrection. It made perfect sense for Chávez to start slowly and portray himself as the democrat he was not, accelerating his revolutionary agenda in accordance with his growing political and economic power to implement it. At the same time, as Fidel Castro allegedly told Evo Morales, and probably Hugo Chávez as well — in today’s world it was important to use democratic institutions rather than guns to make a successful revolution.
It is very possible that the recently announced nationalizations and the use of new decree powers may prove less extreme than many people fear. This would not, however, mean that the Bolivarian Revolution has gone as far as it will go. Instead, it could mean that the declining price of petroleum, or a rethinking of revolutionary strategy, might argue for a slightly slower revolutionary process or tactical shift. But anyone who appears complacent about the future of their Venezuelan assets, given the accumulating evidence of the regime’s hostility toward private property, either is an eternal optimist, has already made enough money from these assets so that he can afford to lose them or has most of his assets outside of Venezuela.
Susan Kaufman Purcell, is director of the University of Miami's Center on Hemispheric Policy and the author of several books on Latin America, including Mexico Under Fox and Cuba: The Contours of Change. Prior to her current position, she was vice president of the Council of the Americas for 16 years and has also served as senior fellow and director of the Latin America Project at the Council of Foreign Relations. This column originally appeared in Spanish in AmericaEconomia magazine.