Even in death, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez will be a powerful force guiding his countrymen to elect Vice President Nicolas Maduro to replace him.
Some call the widely predicted victory of Chavez’s handpicked successor a “sympathy vote” for the charismatic president who died of cancer Tuesday at 58. Others will support Maduro out of respect for Chavez’s anointment of the former bus driver as best suited to carry on in the role of Robin Hood, diverting billions from private oil ventures to food subsidies, college scholarships, free Chinese-made appliances and Cuban-staffed health clinics.
Chavez opponents were many and varied during his tumultuous 14-year tenure, but their numbers never came close to the legions of Venezuelans who came to idolize the only president to devote Venezuela’s oil wealth to the needy.
But nostalgia and affection may prove short-lived policies to sustain Chavismo without Chavez, Latin American scholars say. Especially if sky-high oil prices currently bankrolling social “missions” fall from the $100-per-barrel levels that fill government coffers with the means of financing the top-down largesse.
Chavez’s vision of a prosperous and modern socialist state was a work left unfinished. Social services flourished under a 60% increase in government spending over the last decade, but so did violent crime and corruption. Police, the military and the courts are under the governing party’s influence, as seen by the failure of those institutions to abide by the constitutional dictate that the National Assembly president, not the vice president, serve as interim leader.
Venezuela suffers South America’s worst murder rate, with 73 per 100,000 inhabitants meeting a violent end last year, or nearly 15 times the U.S. homicide rate, according to the nongovernmental Venezuela Violence Observatory. Kidnapping for ransom has soared, and armed gangs rule the treacherous slums of Caracas and other major cities.
“Chavismo is very much going to continue without Chavez, but it will never be the same,” Cynthia Arnson, Latin America program director for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said of the late leader’s signature development agenda.
With the majority of Venezuelans still far below the regional poverty line, there will be no retrenching of the costly missions, Arnson said.
She predicted a relatively easy victory for Maduro in the presidential vote that must be held within 30 days of Chavez’s death, according to the constitution. But “cracks and divisions will become more apparent in the medium term” as Chavez lieutenants stumble in attempts to fill his shoes.
“Chavez had a singular ability to keep his movement unified, to keep direct contact with his massive base. No leader, not Maduro or anyone else, has that quality,” Arnson said.
As Chavez lay dying at a Cuban hospital last month, his government devalued the bloated bolivar currency by 32%, a move mandated by successive years of double-digit inflation and profligate government spending to ensure Chavistas retained power in the presidential and gubernatorial elections last year.
“Inflation is a huge tax on the poor,” said Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela now heading the Institute of the Americas think tank in La Jolla. “If you’re in the middle class and have dollars in a bank outside the country, you’re OK. But if you’re poor and living off wages, inflation really hurts.”
Perhaps more than the economic bite, the unity of Chavez supporters may be vulnerable to the violent fringes of a disparate array of leftist supporters, he said.
“What Chavez was able to do was hold together this really strange amalgam that is Chavismo that goes from anarchists to armed pro-Chavez militia insurgent groups in the gigantic housing projects to the military to leftist intellectuals with a social conscience,” Shapiro said. Maduro, assuming he gets elected president, will have to watch his back in his own power circles, Shapiro added.
Chavez once confided to Shapiro that he felt "like a retaining wall,” the only thing holding back potentially destructive forces, the retired career diplomat recalled.
Hostility against Chavez opponents erupted even as the masses mourned his passing. Masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing guns, on Tuesday rousted students who had been protesting against the government for a week near the Supreme Court, the Associated Press reported. Another angry mob menaced a Colombian television crew outside the military hospital where Chavez died, bloodying the forehead of the female reporter.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a Pomona College professor of Latin American history and author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela,” said Chavez appealed to a broad swath of the down-and-out who saw him as coming from their own humble origins.
“Many Venezuelans saw themselves in him -- a person of mixed race, of mixed heritage, from a low social-economic status who now spoke to their interests,” he said.
Opponents never gained traction with campaigns spotlighting waste and inefficiencies in the Chavez missions, but they may gain ground on the socialists if the unity of the late comandante’s disparate supporters begins to fray.
“The opposition has been demoralized, but Chavez’s death will reinvigorate them,” Tinker Salas said. “Eventually they may be able to accomplish in his death what they couldn’t do when he was alive, which is defeat the policies of Chavez.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
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