Life After Chávez: The Apple Can Fall Far From the Tree

By Santiago Fontiveros

The day Steve Jobs died, after a much publicised  battle with cancer, Apple’s shares rose in the stock market - analysts called it “a tribute”. The next year Apple’s stock continued its steady rise, becoming the most valued company ever as measured by market capitalisation. His successor - Tim Cook - had long been in the making, assuring the market he could handle the company after Jobs was gone. Yet, as time goes by, Apple, its shareholders, Cook, and the millions of users around world, are painfully reminded that perhaps there can only be one Steve Jobs - and Apple - as it was, can only be under his tutelage. This lesson could serve Nicolas Maduro well, as he faces the daunting task of governability and survival of the Bolivarian revolution without the charisma of its colourful founder. 

The short-term strategy may seem obvious: win the elections against a confused opposition and extend the life of La Revolución with the Chávez brand, a sort of political “halo-effect”. The long-term strategy is less clear: even if he wins, and even if in the near future the government can experience an increase in popularity, eventually he must face the crude realisation  that he is not Chávez, and that pretending to be him is easier said than done. This does not need to be a tragedy for the government; it can be viewed as an opportunity to upgrade their revolution as Deng Xiaoping once did with China. 

For this to happen the opposition must also learn to manage the revolution instead of simply fighting it. If not, animosity will, once again, cloud rational judgments. This presents many challenges: for starters, the opposition, rightly so, views the government’s form of socialism as disrespectful of their individual economic and political rights- and they have fought incessantly to change the government’s understanding of freedom. For the government the equation works differently. They give preponderance to redistribution of wealth from haves to have-nots – a concept they like to call social justice. The problem is that, on the one hand, the opposition has not been very good at convincing the majority of Venezuelans that their vision is better, on the other, the government is redistributing wealth motivated by a political agenda instead of sustainable growth and is doing it so aggressively that it is distributing wealth we do not have, borrowing unscrupulously and mortgaging the future. 

Given the present circumstances, there may be an open window for the opposition and government to attempt a new trick, one perhaps not possible when Chávez reigned supreme – the enlightenment of la revolución. 

A Theoretical framework for understanding

Political philosophers have designed new frameworks in which liberty is not opposed to equality and vice-versa; both concepts stand as fundamental pillars of democracy. One of such frameworks is John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism. This theory accepts that citizens should not be treated differently as a result of the position in which they were born: rich, poor, black, white, male or female, etc. Therefore according to Rawls, all social goods should be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution would be to everyone’s advantage particularly to the worst-off. It is in that second idea where opposition and government could philosophically converge. Instead of correcting the government’s conception of freedom in the hopes that such a shift will generate better economic policies, the task is to influence their conception of social justice to mend economic variables and the relationship with the productive sector in the hope that it will later in life influence their conception of freedom.

Under this philosophy, material inequalities are not viewed through the lenses of Marxism where the differential is attributed to the exploitation by  the asset owner of  the workers. Instead, inequalities are allowed and fostered so long as they make everyone in society better off. Lorenzo Mendoza, although extremely rich, is justified because he pays taxes redistributing his wealth, creates jobs and produces goods enjoyed by almost everyone. The revolution could be redefined from a Robin Hood state, to a sophisticated wealth fare state promoting the growth of the public sector with private sector best practices- like China, Russia, Brazil, and more admiringly, Nordic countries do. In other words, why fight a radical left if we can manage to work and enlighten a progressive one? 

Opposition and government radicals probably would wince at this- they are too contaminated. The major obstacle for understanding is not ideology but a deeply seated  mistrust between political factors and personal interests. The truth is, Venezuela is extremely divided and no clear political force overpowers the other one. Either a common platform of understanding is genuinely formed or a dangerous clash is in the making. The new successors do not have the gargantuan gift of communication of Chávez; they could react badly to an upfront fight whilst the economy is in a shambles- that can’t be good for anyone. 


Santiago Fontiveros is a Venezuelan lawyer with a MA in International Taxation from NYU and an MBA from Cass Business School. He is a regular contributor to national newspapers El Universal and Analitica as a political analyst. He has co-authored two books: ¿Estudiantes por la Libertad? (2007) and Más Allá del Movimiento Estudiantil (2008).


2 April 2013