The world is watching on as Venezuela starts the process of choosing a new president following Hugo Chavez’s death. The country is currently going through a seven day mourning period following the death of their long-time leader, announced on Tuesday by vice-president and would be successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Edmundo Bracho, a Venezuelan native and guest lecturer at the University of Westminister told The Archer about the feelings of the people back in his homeland, “There’s a lot of mixed feeling,” he said. “My family come from the left-wing background but they’re one of those segments of society that became disillusioned with Chavez especially after he decided to change the constitution and to run for president indefinitely because they saw that he developed a personality that betrayed democratic principles.”
The current favourite to take over the presidency is Maduro who was appointed by Chavez as vice-president last year after serving for six years as the country’s foreign minister. Chavez implored followers of chavismo to vote for Maduro if he was unable to serve out his fourth term in office.
“The country was so Chavez-centric, it was all centred on his persona, his initiative, he governed everything,” Barcho said. “Institutions were virtually non-existent, he had the ultimate say on everything. But Maduro will have to capitalise on the fact that he was anointed by Chavez.”
According to the country’s constitution a new election has to be held within 30 days of the president’s death. As Chavez hadn’t been sworn in for his fourth term the constitution says the president of the legislature should take over in the interim but the Supreme Court stated in January that an incumbent’s re-inauguration was a formality and the current cabinet should remain in place.
Little is known about Maduro within the country who has no political base of his own. His likely challenger is Henrique Capriles of the opposition coalition (MUD) who lost by ten points to Chavez back in October.
“The opposition had hoped that he would be more pragmatic than Chavez,” Bracho said. “But from the discourse, from the tone of his discourse it hasn’t been so. He’s a kind of Chavez mimic. He’s trying to imitate Chavez as much as he can but he hasn’t got even a tenth of the charisma or the colourfulness so to form the effective emotional contact with the people. That will be hard for him.”
In opinion polls held last year Capriles was shown ahead of Maduro but in more recent polls the vice-president is leading as he enjoys the sympathy vote following Chavez’s death.
Capriles is a centralist but could be challenged for his party’s nomination by Lara state governor Henri Falcón. The party has a history of backstabbing and grandstanding and had been united due to their hatred of Chavez but with him now removed the party could break apart.
“They had issues probably a few weeks ago but now they’ve had to become coercive and united because they know they face a massive challenge,” Bracho explained. “They know that Maduro, Diosdado (Cabello) and the chavista forces will rely very heavily on the sentiments of the people after Chavez’s death.
“If the elections are in 30 days it will be Maduro who wins, if he’s selected as a candidate which is looking to be the case. The opposition haven’t been aggressive enough, they are in a mourning phase or respect to the mourners phase and 30 days is a very short time to prepare an electoral apparatus which chavismo have.”
The same applies to Chavez’s own party, the United Socialist Party (PSUV) who had been held together by Chavez’s charismatic tongue. The party is split between the poor civilian radical left and the more pragmatic military arm.
The party could yet be further split if Diosadado Cabello, the president of the legislature, decides to challenge Maduro for leadership of the party. Cabello was looked over by Chavez in favour of Maduro but Cabello enjoys much more support throughout the country and crucially with high ranking members of the Venezuelan army.
“(Maduro) is not the most powerful man. The man who has more political influence especially within the army, which is a key factor, is Cabello,” Bracho said. “I think it is going to be a marriage of convenience between Maduro and Cabello.
“On the one hand, Maduro is seen in a more positive light by what I would call the spiritual chavistas, that is those people that truly think Chavez lead a revolutionary socialist project and are very much aligned with Fidel and the Castro brothers. They see Cabello as a nationalist kind of bourgeois, what they call over there the ‘bully bourgeois’; Interested in making money, who has been very canny in making his political moves but they don’t see Cabello as someone who truly believes in the Chavez legacy.
“They do see Maduro as kind of the St. Paul; the anointed apostle of Chavez. But then again there is a lot of discontent within the military about the Cuban intrusion within the military and that’s what Diosdado could capitalise upon because he’s not fond of the Cuban influence in the intelligence service and the military. His is more of a nationalistic military view but now he knows he has to gain popularity via an extremist pro-Chavez discourse so right now in their speeches, and I’m referring to both Maduro and Diosdado, are both polarized and very radical.”
Whoever Chavez’s successor will be he will inherit a troubled economy. Despite having the world’s greatest oil reserves the country is stuck in the midst of a recession.
Chavez was the champion of the poor during his 14-year reign in Venezuela. Extreme poverty was reduced from around 25 percent to 8.6 percent in 2012 despite the economic turmoil. Unemployment was halved and GDP per capita was doubled as oil exports rose exponentially from $14.4 billion to $60 billion in 2011.
This windfall in revenues allowed Chavez to embark on his much championed “Bolivarian Missions” of social welfare, health, education and anti-poverty reforms, so named after Chavez’s hero Simon Bolivar who tried to unite Latin America under his rule.
The health reforms were staffed by Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela in exchange for the preferential oil deals they enjoyed due to the close father-son relationship Fidel Castro had with Chavez.
But the country has struggled to pull itself out of recession with many shelves at the country’s Mercal supermarkets remaining empty and severe droughts have caused major, often daily, blackouts across the country as the government failed to adequately invest in electricity supplies.
Real wages have also fallen in the country as violent crime and corruption has soared with 20,000 murders occurring last year and the police becoming more corrupt. The country’s nationalist and socialist policies have also scared away large companies from Venezuela meaning the country is becoming increasingly reliant on their oil exports for revenue.
“There’s hyper-inflation, there’s devaluation of the national currency, there’s what you would call unemployment. By the government’s accounts over 40 percent of the people are employed in the informal sector of the economy so that’s not proper.” Bracho explained. “There’s a massive fiscal debt, the infrastructure needs a lot of maintenance, the oil industry, I wouldn’t say has collapsed, but it’s certainly not working as it did 10 years ago. The main challenge would be an economic one but also the insecurity and crime. This is an issue that’s not stressed enough by the media but the drug trade is coming in stronger and stronger and in some states such as Apure half of it is already being run by drug barrons. These are issues that will come up over the long term.”
With a population of 29 million people becoming more polarized by the day, Chavez’s successor will face the monumental tasks of uniting their own party, the country and turning a failing economy around.
By Christopher Scott