Castro Apologist Spins Her View of Post-Chavez Venezuela 1

NPR: After Chavez, What’s Next For Venezuela?

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez died Tuesday in Caracas, leaving many unanswered questions about the future of the country. Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks about the impact “Chavismo” had on Venezuela and the world.

LYNN NEARY, HOST: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Lynn Neary. And as I’ve just mentioned, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday. He led his country for 14 years. A passionate defender of the poor, Chavez had closed ties with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, but alienated the United States with his socialist agenda. His politics reverberated throughout the region.

If you have any questions about the politics of Venezuela, give us a call. The number here is 800-989-8255. The email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining me now to talk about the legacy of President Hugo Chavez is Julia Sweig. She is a senior fellow and director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote a piece with The Atlantic last month called “What Hugo Chavez Built: The Legacy of Latin-American ‘Chavismo.'” She joins us by phone from Calistoga, California. Good to have with you, Julia.

JULIA SWEIG: Great to be here, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Now, in that piece in The Atlantic, you said that early in his presidency, Chavez remarked that he saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history. What did he mean by that, a transitional figure?

SWEIG: Well, what I surmised at that time, that he meant, is that his objectives in Venezuela to really overhaul the political and economic status quo would require a very long time, and that there was no possibility that one person alone could accomplish his very, very ambitious goals, that the Venezuela he inherited from the ancient regime, if you will, had deep, deep social and political and economic cleavages. And that to redress those, he was but a flicker on the historical screen. I’m not sure, 10 years later, he would have described himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history, but I actually see him that way as well.

NEARY: Now, he had a very strong political and very personal relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Tell us about that.

SWEIG: Yes, he absolutely did, and it goes back to the early 1990s. In 1992, after Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez staged a failed coup himself, he traveled to Cuba and he developed there, with Fidel, a very close and long-standing strategic conversation and then political relationship once he took power in 1999. Fidel Castro, to my mind, saw in Chavez a way to prolong his own legacy and ambition in Latin America as an anti-imperialist, as a revolutionary, albeit in a very different context than when Fidel himself took up that mantle in the 1960s. And they really had a mind meld, of sorts, if you wish, which continued up until; I’m sure, their last goodbye, last week, before Chavez returned from Havana.

NEARY: And, of course, Hugo Chavez was able to funnel a lot of help into Cuba, a lot of financial help into Cuba.

SWEIG: Yes, he did. The relationship was an enormous benefit to Cuba in that regard. After 1989, the Cubans lost their Soviet subsidy. They went for a decade of very, very severe economic crisis. But as the political, diplomatic relationship deepened, especially after 2002, the economic financial relationship also blossomed. And it wasn’t just in the Caracas-Havana direction, although the subsidized oil programs, the barter, the investment that, you know, almost zero-financing, zero-interest investment by Chavez in Cuba was enormous. But Cuba’s investment in Venezuela was likewise essential, I think, to Chavez consolidating his political domination – dominance in the country.

So it wasn’t just the advisers who were providing medical care to poor Venezuelans who had never had it or barely had it, not just the sports, not just the culture, not just the capacity building, but it was strategic advice about how to consolidate power, how to build the institutions of Chavismo, that we’ll now be able to see how long-lasting they were.

NEARY: Well, what were his relations like with the rest of Latin America and South America? I imagine there’s a variety there. But give us a sense of how he was viewed.

SWEIG: You know, I think it’s useful to – so Chavez, in a way, as Fidel had in the past, took up the mantle of sort of representing the David challenging Washington’s Goliath. And in Latin America, the first decade of this century, we saw, not only in Venezuela, but we saw in a number of countries – in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Nicaragua – of a very different stripe. In Brazil and Argentina, we saw what is, you know, could be loosely understood as a left, center-left – sometimes populist, sometimes not – ethos dominate politics and elect politicians.

Chavez was controversial, even within those countries that I just mentioned, but he also had very, very high symbolic value because he tried to make the case that Latin America no longer needed Washington, could act on its own accord, could have an independent foreign policy, could organize its economies in defiance sometimes of what was called the Washington consensus, could build its own destiny without having to ask permission first. And that’s a very, very resonant message that Chavez embodied.

But at the same time, not only was he polarizing domestically, he also was within the region. And he was very – I would use the word – presumptuous and assuming that this Bolivarian revolutionary model that he had for Venezuela and that he saw for especially the Andean region would be accepted universally and it was not.

It was largely pushed back against, while at the same time, heads of state like Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, before her, Lula in Brazil sort of found a way to appreciate Chavez without – but also erecting some constraints to his ability to mobilize and polarize the region.

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