Book review: “Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez”

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Book review: Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez. By Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. Brookings Institution Press; second edition edition (2015), 224 pages. U$27.00 (paperback, amazon.com)

Hugo Chavez was, without a doubt, one of the most visible and controversial political figures in Latin America over the past decades. Three years after his death, what is his legacy? In the second edition of Dragon in the Tropics, Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold argue that the major legacy of chavismo is the creation of a competitive-authoritarian system (elections, but with built-in advantages for the ruling party), and that Maduro has made the system less competitive and more authoritarian. The resulting policy immobilism, the authors argue, has led to the most profound economic crisis in Venezuela's history.

Venezuela's polarization is often extrapolated to outside observers -- indeed, debates about the situation in Venezuela in Brasília, Santiago or Buenos Aires are sometimes fiercer than in Caracas. As an international diplomat based in Caracas rightly noted during my recent visit to Venezuela, chavismo is the only foreign policy topic that generates a domestic reaction in virtually all countries of the region (which, to some degree, explains why governments are so reluctant to take a strong stance vis-à-vis Venezuela: It carries domestic political risks).

Chavez, the authors argue, used a moment of strong popularity to eliminate checks and balances, concentrating too much power in the presidency. Venezuela's democracy in the 1990s was frail, they admit, but it was plural and checks and balances were largely in place, before they were systematically eliminated -- for example, giving Chavez complete discretion over promotions in the armed forces without legislative approval.

Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution transformed the country’s political system in what scholars call a “high-stakes” model: the advantages of holding office and, conversely, the costs of remaining in the opposition significantly expanded. When the stakes of holding powers are high, the incentives for incumbents to give up power to the opposition decline, and acceptance for the opposition of the status quo stands dramatically reduced. Indeed, few factors may be more important to understand the political dynamics of contemporary Venezuela.

The book is also essential to understand the dilemma the opposition in Venezuela faces: Should it participate in a system that is very clearly rigged in favor of the ruling party, thus implicitly legitimizing it? Chavez has been capable of continuously diving the opposition by accepting some of their demands but not others, constantly creating an intra-opposition struggle between those who seek to operate within the set of rules (such as Henrique Capriles) and those who argue that there is little point in standing for office merely to be humiliated by constantly moving goalposts -- as the opposition in Venezuela’s National Assembly is currently finding out.

The authors show detailed knowledge of Venezuelan politics -- yet their account of the year 2002, one of the most controversial episodes in Venezuela’s recent history, is rather one-sided. They describe the 2002 coup against Chavez as a “series of coups”, arguing that Chavez’ return to power constituted a coup against Carmona, even though the latter had no constitutional legitimacy whatsoever. Contrary to what Penford and Corrales claim, Chavez never resigned, so his return to power was entirely legal. In the same way, the authors call the international audit of the 2004 referendum “very superficial” and “lacking credibility” even though the Carter Center and several others dismissed the charges of fraud. In the same way, the 2009 coup in Honduras against Zelaya is depicted as less controversial than it actually was.

The occasional bias does not change the fact that Dragon in the Tropics is the most sophisticated analysis of chavismo on the market. The authors shrewdly point to a fact often overlooked by Latin America’s left: By 2006, Chavez’s socialism of the 21st century was looking increasingly like Latin America’s “hard corporatism” – akin to Brazil’s Getulio Vargas – of the mid-20th century – providing generous benefits to old-time beneficiaries: military officials, government and state enterprise employees, and state contractors.

The chapter on PDVSA, Venezuela's oil company, is particularly instructive and seeks to explain an interesting paradox: Why did Chavez, who strongly relied on the oil sector, allow it to decline so much since 1999? Going beyond the classic resource curse thesis, the authors argue that Chavez’ disdain for checks and balances, and his decision to transform the company into a parallel state that spent more than U$ 4bn on social programs (most of which proved to be unsustainable), ultimately explain its deterioration from a highly respected institution to a basket case.

As one would expect, Corrales and Penfold are highly critical of Venezuela's foreign policy under Chavez, which, they argue, was not about regional solidarity, but about buying influence that would constrain international critics, inhibit potential regional political coalitions, and weaken existing multilateral institutions that could potentially be the source of criticism of Chavez -- such as the Organization of American States (OAS), which Venezuela successfully weakened. The authors estimate that between 1999 and 2007, Chavez promised more than U$ 40bn in international aid, of which around 17 bn were actually spent -- comparable to the aid budgets of countries like Sweden. However, a complete lack of transparency makes any type of impact assessment impossible.

From a US-perspective, they describe Venezuela's strategy as "soft balancing". Interestingly enough, that may be true from a Brazilian standpoint as well, even though many analysts based in Brazil wrongly viewed and continue to view Venezuela under chavismo as an ally. From an economic point of view, Venezuela matters greatly to Brazil, and Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm, regularly helped finance Chavez' elections campaigns. And yet, Venezuela posed (along with Nestor Kirchner's Argentina, to a lesser degree) the prime challenge to Brazil's regional leadership ambitions. While neither Chavez nor Maduro openly criticized Brazil, Venezuela's foreign policy activism nonetheless created a Bolivarian zone of influence where Caracas mattered more than Brasília -- to the chagrin of President Lula. In addition, Venezuela's unpredictability, anti-US American rhetoric and controversial alliances could negatively affect the region's reputation and generate the type of US attention to the region Brazil had always sought to avoid. A notorious case was the so-called Andean Crisis, when Hugo Chavez used diplomatic tensions between Ecuador and Colombia to try to stir up regional instability, even though his country was not directly involved. Chavez lost a lot of goodwill in Brasília during the episode. Today, leading policy makers in Brasília privately admit that the fall of Maduro (most likely suffering a coup from within chavismo) would generate little protest.

The case of Venezuela will raise profound doubts about the region's capacity to preserve democratic rule. Corrales and Penfold may be somewhat too critical of UNASUR, but even optimists must admit that Chavez was at no point systematically pressured to uphold certain democratic standards. This may be due to two reasons. First of all, Chavez was clever and dismantled checks and balances in small steps, which by themselves were too insignificant to generate a strong pushback in the region. Rather than falsifying election results (as Fujimori did in Peru in 2000), Chavez astutely rigged the rules of the game in a more subtle manner (e.g. by prohibiting any type of campaign donations to the opposition, but lavishly financing his own party with public money) so that quick visits by election observers would never generate any problems. Secondly, while organizations such as Mercosur and UNASUR have mechanisms to defend democracy, they are designed to protect the incumbent, but do little to contain those in power and prevent their excesses.

With Venezuela in a deep economic crisis, and aid from Caracas reduced to a minimum, Maduro's foreign policy is largely focused on obtaining financial support from China and assuring worried creditors that Venezuela will pay back its debts. The internal crisis, however, has not reduced Maduro's willingness to use foreign policy to shore up internal support, as he tried to do before the 2015 parliamentary elections, expelling thousands of Colombians from the country and reviving a border conflict with Guyana. Indeed, an ever less popular chavista President may resort to nationalism and xenophobia again to avoid electoral defeat in the coming months and years. Domestically, repression is set to increase, as Maduro will have to use sources of authority other than electoral victory to stay in power-- namely, a controlled judiciary that invalidates most of what the opposition-dominated National Assembly decides.

What does that mean for the future of Venezuelan politics? With an ever more authoritarian but unpopular government, it remains to be seen whether the system will still permit a defeat at the polls in a presidential election. Maduro's reaction to the loss in December is deeply worrisome: Rather than promoting dialogue, he has disempowered parliament -- partly driven, of course, by the parliament's initiative to oust the President. One thing is for sure: Changing the Constitution to reduce presidential power, even in a post-chavismo scenario, is likely to be a sensible step to reduce the extreme polarization that has become the hallmark of Venezuelan politics.

Corrales and Penfold have written an authoritative account of Venezuelan politics under Chavez and Maduro that will be hard to beat. Critics will (rightly) point to the occasional bias. Still, Dragon in the Tropics is a must-read for anyone interested in Venezuelan politics, contemporary populism and the politics of oil.

Read also:

Venezuela: Beyond chavismo vs. anti-chavismo 

Some historical context: What if Venezuela declared default?

Venezuela’s Political Crisis: Can Regional Actors Help?

Photo credit: Platon Antoniou