The 14-year presidency of Hugo Chavez produced a Venezuela that today is falling apart economically, as inflation soars and goods disappear from shelves, as well as legally, with property rights trampled and political freedoms curtailed.
There are plenty of good reasons to hope that the death of Chavez last week will bring constructive new direction to his beleaguered nation. Unfortunately, history does not provide many good reasons to expect this sort of welcome change, at least any time soon.
This will also be the case when Fidel and Raul Castro make their own long-awaited departures from Cuba’s political scene.
The death of a dictator or other dominant leader seldom changes the political culture of a nation, and such change is even less likely to come quickly. (With his propensity to rule by decree, Chavez qualifies as a dictator in my book, though he had an undeniable base of popular support among Venezuela’s poor.)
Joseph Stalin died in 1953, but the Soviet Union lumbered on for nearly four more decades before it collapsed of its own economic dead weight. Though the worst of Stalin’s brutality died with him, the well-entrenched system of autocratic rule, subjugated courts and military dominance over the country’s productive capacity continued almost unabated. Even after the Soviet collapse, nothing resembling democratic ideals took root in Russian society, or in most of the non-Russian republics carved out of the former Soviet empire, excepting the Baltic states that joined the European Union. As Russia has lapsed back under the thumb of a strongman named Vladimir Putin, many of the other former Soviet territories suffer under even more corrupt regimes, from Belarus in the west to the Central Asian states in the east.
The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not appreciably change conditions in Iran’s self-proclaimed Islamic Republic. The conservative clergy holds nominal power, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps holds the true power as kingmaker - a power that the Corps exploits for its own economic gain, even as the rest of the country suffers under severe economic sanctions for pursuing nuclear weapons.
Chairman Mao Zedong’s passing in 1976 did bring profound financial change to China within a few years, as his successors introduced far-reaching business reforms and opened the nation’s economy to world trade. But politically, China is almost as insular and undeveloped today as when Mao’s Gang of Four held sway. Mao famously said that political power flows from the barrel of a gun - and that is as true in 21st century China as it was when Mao and his compatriots fought Nationalist forces and Japanese invaders in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Ho Chi Minh’s death did not liberate Vietnam. Tito’s death brought a decade of misery and war to the former Yugoslavia; the regions which used to form the nation have seen mixed results since then.
There are some isolated examples in which a dictator’s death brought genuine reform. Within a few years of Francisco Franco’s passing, Spain joined Western Europe’s democratic community. But Spain’s democratic transition might not have withstood a reactionary coup attempt by disgruntled military officers in 1981, had it not been for the courage of the then-young King Juan Carlos in facing down the rebels.
The leaders of the World War II Axis powers were all dead by the end of the war except for Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, who was allowed to keep his throne in exchange for forswearing any active role in his country’s governance. But in the case of the Axis, true reform was eventually imposed by postwar occupiers and only accepted by those nations’ populations thereafter.
Genuine democracy requires checks and balances. Neither economic nor political liberty is assured until a nation establishes the principle that no person or group has a monopoly on power. Often, a population must rebel against its former rulers to establish such checks and balances. This is why the death of one ruler rarely prevents a successor from preserving the status quo. The problem in such societies is the system, not just the people at the top.
For Venezuela - or Cuba - to change, the nation will have to decide that it wants to change. The most important actors in that decision will be the ones who have the power of force behind them, meaning the military and paramilitary organizations that maintain the current crop of leaders. If they continue to serve in that role, nothing is likely to change. When they abandon it, as appeared to happen in Egypt during the Arab Spring, there are grounds for hope.
I am not optimistic about Venezuela. From here, the right path seems obvious - but I am a comfortable American, not a poor Venezuelan. Many of them loved Chavez, despite the inflation, shortages, corruption and general underperformance of their economy, because he at least gave them something, even if he took what he gave from someone else by force. A lot of Venezuelans appear to see little upside in supporting a new system that their experience tells them only benefits others.
We can hope for change in post-Chavez Venezuela, but I think it is probably a mistake to expect it any time soon.