In recent years, it was Hugo Chávez – far more than Fidel Castro – who was the international face of Latin American radicalism: the spiritual heir to Che, Perón and Castro himself. Now that Chávez is dead, will we see his like again?
I suspect that the answer is probably not. Chávez himself will be hard to imitate. But there will certainly be people in Venezuela, and elsewhere, who will adopt his style. The bigger problem is that the whole Chávez model no longer looks so attractive in Latin America.
The contrast with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil is striking. Although Chávez was a military man and Lula was a trade-unionist, both leaders espoused radical, left-wing ideas in their early careers. The difference is that Lula was much more pragmatic in office. This does not mean that he sold out. On the contrary, like Chávez’s Venezuela, Lula’s Brazil placed a heavy emphasis on redistributive policies that favoured the poor. Lula was also happy, on occasion, to play to the gallery with some anti-imperialist rhetoric. But he was also prepared to make his peace with big business and with the United States. Brazil has become a favoured destination for foreign investors.
The difference in the two countries’ fortunes is marked. Of course, any economic comparison is made difficult by the distorting effect of Venezuela’s oil wealth. But the Brazilian economy has grown strongly, until this year – without the shortages and inflation that marred the Chávez era in Venezuela. Politically, Brazil has also avoided the trap of the “big man” politics that has too often marred Latin American development. Lula stepped down as president; Chávez seemed determined to go on and on – until cancer struck him down.
It is now clear which model is more highly regarded, both in Latin America and around the world. Chávez had allies in Bolivia and Ecuador. But there was a significant moment in Peru, one of the economic stars of the continent, when Ollanta Humala was elected president in 2011. Many on the Peruvian right feared that Humala was all set to be their version of Chávez, and cited his previous ties to the Venezuelan leader. But Humala’s people insisted that their model was Lula. One of his aides at the time told me bluntly that they had no intention of emulating Chávez, adding – “We’re not crazy.”
And so it proved. The emulation effect really matters. Many Latin American countries would like to be more like Brazil. Not many see Chávez’s Venezuela as a model.