The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Chavez and Venezuela are like a blissful marriage, with hidden secrets

Questions are swirling as to whether President Hugo Chavez will make it back to Venezuela in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration -- or at all.

While the opposition is advocating for a transfer of power to the head of the National Assembly, many Venezuelans are still praying for Chavez's swift recovery from cancer surgery, the reason he flew to Cuba on Dec. 11.

[Click here for a timeline of Chavez's life]

"We have no idea what to expect. I pray for his recovery but I am expecting the worst," Joaquín Cavarcas told the Guardian.

Formula One driver Pastor Maldonado told the Associated Press that he and millions of other Chavez supporters have "much faith that he's recovering."

Although Chavez's popularity has waned in recent years, he still won his most recent election by 9 percentage points. So how did Chavez, arguably an autocrat who presides over one of the most dangerous countries in South America, get so popular?

Basically, welfare programs, and plenty of them. Foreign Affairs recently tallied them up:

During his 14 years as president, Chávez has launched more than 27 missions, his government's name for social programs. The missions were sold as helping the poor, but no one in government ever worried much about whether the returns justified the investments, or whether the main beneficiaries really were the worst-off.

Chavez has helped Venezuela's poor, but his vast stores of money seem to be reaching their limits. As the New York Times points out, "He has given away tens of thousands of homes, but the rush to build meant that many were plagued by construction flaws or other problems. He has used price controls to make food affordable for the poor, but that has contributed to shortages in basic goods. He created a popular program of neighborhood clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors, but hospitals frequently lack basic equipment."

Over time, these "missions" have amounted to billions in spending, and during election season, Chavez both piled on the money and threatened the programs' disappearance should he lose.

The programs' substantial social benefits have also earned Chavez praise from international bodies, even those who otherwise criticize Venezuela for human rights infringement and high rates of violence:

"In terms of economic, social, and cultural rights, the IACHR recognizes the State's achievements with regard to the progressive observance of these rights, including, most notably, the eradication of illiteracy, the reduction of poverty, and the increase in access by the most vulnerable sectors to basic services such as health care," the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights wrote in 2010.

“Venezuela loves Chávez with guts, heart and mind,” Ramona Caño, a Chavez supporter, told the Economist in September.

Venezuela blogger Francisco Toro drew a comparison to a blissful marriage in which the husband pampers his wife while covering up household financial information, much as Toro believes Chavez has hidden the size and expenditures of his oil-revenue-filled secret state funds.

In the story, Populus, or the public, is the wife, and Hugo is -- well, you guessed it:

Over the years, Populus has grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and Hugo has made all kinds of promises that that lifestyle is built on solid rock.


Populus knows Hugo had a run of good luck in recent years: he made a big windfall from his backyard mining business. But since Hugo won’t show her the statements for his savings account, she has no way of knowing how much of the windfall he saved, how much he has since spent, or how much is left on hand. Hugo likes to brag about the lovely gifts he’s bought her with the savings from that Fonden savings account, but when Populus asks to see the statements he just clams up, flat out refuses her requests.


In fairness to Hugo, she doesn’t ask very often. As long as her lifestyle is sustained, she’s happy to not know.


Sure, there are some signs that things may not be all that rosy. Those credit card statements are coming back fatter and fatter each month. Insofar as Populus worries about that, which isn’t actually very far at all, she’s puzzled. She knows he pays 12% interest on that credit card debt, and only gets 2 or 3% interest on his savings out of Fonden Bank. But, again, she doesn’t ask too many questions; she’s minded to trust him.


And why shouldn't she? Life is great! They have this thing they do in their family where every six-years they renew their vows and boy, Hugo really makes it rain at those times.


Some of Populus’s curmudgeonly uncles, though, can’t help but question her: is their lifestyle really sustainable?

Now, Venezuela is left with high debt, skyrocketing inflation and a fiscal and trade deficit, a situation either Chavez or whoever succeeds him will eventually have to fix.

If Chavez doesn't recover and assume a fourth term, there's no assurance that the popular programs that kept him in office will survive without him. Vice President Nicolas Maduro would likely succeed him.

"Chavez presumably selected Maduro as his vice president because he was confident that the former bus driver would continue his Bolivarian revolution," James Lindsay, of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes. "Maduro may turn out to be a loyal lieutenant. But history offers up many examples of proteges who abandoned their mentor’s course or lacked the political skills to remain in power."