How can we understand the regional “appeal” that the Chavista project had for years, and its more recent deceleration? In our paper [here], we focused on the legitimation strategies of Hugo Chávez and Chavismo, the political project, movement and regime led by Chávez, his regional allies and successors, carrying out a detailed analysis of its initiatives. Beyond the specifics, we suggested that while legitimizing his political project, Chávez claimed to address the expectations of wide sectors in the Americas, whose voice he was interpreting and expressing.
Our main aim was to understand how Chavismo changed the terms of reference of millions of people in the Americas, and what strategies of legitimation it launched and performed. Chavismo stressed at once nationalism, transnational identities and global realignments. That strategy did not suggest to choose among these goals in an either/or manner but rather combined them in a calibrated effort to redo regional commitments and position itself on the global stage.
What stood out was the conjunction between the material assistance used to advance its political agenda and the rhetorical reliance and transformation of a pre-existing discourse of transnational solidarity. We understood that to attribute all the influence of Chavismo at the regional level to its cultural-ideological weight would be insufficient, but to dismiss it would be futile. It was the combination of both the concrete policies and the discursive terms used to justify and legitimize the movement’s agenda that was key to the popular appeal of Chavismo and to its consequent legitimation in the regional arena. This layer of legitimacy also provided the basis for Chávez’s global realignment and served the foreign policy of defying the hegemony of the USA and its allies. Indeed, international legitimacy is built into structural power but is maintained or challenged via strategic interaction through legitimation strategies.
Focusing on the case of Chavismo, we can reconstruct the rise and partial erosion of an encompassing narrative of ‘Nuestramerican’ (‘Our-American’) solidarity and its political implications for regional dynamics. The meta-narrative of Nuestramérica is not new. Without necessarily using the exact wording, the idea of creating solidary ties in the region has long historic roots and can be traced back to Simón Bolívar and his ideal of attaining Spanish American unity and to many leading voices of our region, such as among others, in the famous essay on Nuestra América by José Martí in 1891 or the essays in Temas de nuestra América by José Carlos Mariátegui, or the leaders of the Unionist Movement in Central America in the 1920s. These figures, among many others, wanted to strengthen transnational Latin American solidarity, opposing Nuestra América to the other America, the United States, with which it was potentially in conflict, while making a call to recognize the common paths of sister-nations and begin a process of joint identity formation toward political integration.
Hence, for over more than a century, the notion of Nuestramérica was understood as a call to encourage anti-imperialist resistance and strengthen a specific Latin American cultural and political path. Aiming to legitimize regionalist political projects, on multiple occasions the notion was summoned to vindicate various transnational projects, though not necessarily in converging lines, as the variegated ideas of Panamericanism, Latin Americanism, Iberoamericanism, Indoamericanism or Afro Americanism indicate. Other projects also made use discursively of the notion of 'we the [xxx] Americans' to legitimize their messages, ranging from the classic populist leaders to the authoritarian rulers of the Cold War dictatorships, and more recently, the sub-regional projects of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). However, it was only with the advancement of the political project of Chavismo that the massive and systematic use of the concept of Nuestramérica as a legitimation strategy appeared to be foundational.
To understand how Chavismo changed the terms of reference of millions of people in the Americas, one must recognize the conjunction between the material assistance used to advance a political agenda and the rhetorical reliance on a pre-existing, but re-designed, Nuestramerican transnational solidarity. It was the combination of both dimensions that was key to the popular appeal of Chavismo and its consequent political legitimation in the regional arena. In parallel to a strong discursive emphasis on transnational unity, Chávez also put the proceeds from the sale of oil to the service of regional objectives. His strategy was likely the first major demonstration of a Latin- American country that not only summoned others to implement a vision of regional integration but also was willing to assume the costs involved, unlike Brazil, Argentina, or Mexico. Hence, once forces sympathetic to its political project reached power, Chavismo established inter-governmental cooperation at a pace unprecedented in Latin American history. This took the form of mega-projects and millions of petrodollars in subsidized resources, using a ‘checkbook shock’ to become a focus of soft hegemony by appealing to strategic goals of development throughout the region.
However, Chavismo’s regionalist political project never succeeded to fulfill complete regional hegemony, while symptoms of the decline of its discursive narrative and activist solidarity based on the Nuestramerican identity began to strengthen. The end of unlimited resources resulting of the Venezuelan oil crisis, the "identitarian boomerang" from indigenous and other empowered minorities, the emergence of a regionalist fatigue and the return of the neo-liberal appeal, would seem to indicate that this strategy of identity legitimation may have entered a deceleration stage. When Chávez was still alive, symptoms began to appear that the strategy of Chavista legitimization through the political imaginary of transnational solidarity began to suffer setbacks, decelerating so much that many forecasted a collapse. In any case, the struggle over claims to represent the region is still under way.
Does the erosion in the regional appeal of Chavismo as Venezuela entered into deep crisis mean that the transnational dimension of regional mass politics has given way to the pole of more nationalistic and individualistic interests? Our claim, based on the analysis of both the material and symbolic underpinnings of Chavismo, is that two centuries after political independence, transnational themes, grievances and expectations have continued to reverberate in the minds of people, and still play a key role in Latin American politics and international relations. Towards the end of our article, we mention the fabled conspiracy story of URSAL and its impact on the last Brazilian presidential debates and campaign as further proof of the lasting presence of transnationalism in the imagery and (de)legitimation strategies of Latin America.