With Venezuela's president-for-life looking pretty close to death, the country's politicians are jostling to fill his shoes.
- By Peter WilsonPeter Wilson, a freelance journalist who recently left Venezuela after 24 years, is writing a book about Hugo Chávez and his failed socialist revolution.
CARACAS, Venezuela — Ramon Pacheco likes to boast that he is a Chávista to his bones.
President of his rural consejo communal, or commune, outside the northern city of El Consejo, Pacheco has voted for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in each of his four presidential runs. A member of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the 37 year-old farmer has been willing to overlook growing crime in his village, constant power outages, as well as shortages of fertilizer, seeds, and basic foodstuffs such as corn meal and sugar.
"I believe in Chávez," says Pacheco. "Sure, we have problems — but they’re not el comandante’s fault. He’s surrounded by incompetents, opportunists, and thieves."
He’s still not sure which of the three Vice President Nicolás Maduro is. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir apparent last month before leaving to undergo his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba. Since his departure, Chávez hasn’t been seen or heard from — leading to rumors about his demise or permanent incapacitation. The president is said to be battling a respiratory infection that has made it difficult for him to breathe.
But we now know for certain what has been suspected for weeks — that the president will be unable to attend Thursday’s scheduled swearing-in ceremony. The National Assembly voted on Jan. 8 to allow Chávez to be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. (Under the Venezuelan Constitution, however, all presidents must be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, or before the Supreme Court at another location.) The country’s supreme court ruled on Jan. 9 that the postponement is constitutional. What will happen, though, if Chávez doesn’t recover is a more problematic question.
"Maduro’s no Chávez," Pacheco says. "He doesn’t connect with the people like Chávez does. He doesn’t understand us. He doesn’t think like one of us. I may think differently if he starts to do something like take a strong stance against corruption, which is running wild here. I just don’t see him doing that."
Whether Chávismo will be able to survive in the event Chávez dies, or is unable to continue governing, will depend on Maduro’s abilities to convince people like Pacheco that he can carry on the country’s socialist revolution. The challenge is that the revolution, up until now, has been a populist movement rooted in the president’s visceral charisma and force of personality, rather than any concrete principles or policy platform.
"I have my doubts about Chávismo without Chávez," Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in the October presidential race by 10 percentage points, told El Universal newspaper in a widely quoted interview. "Any leadership without Chávez appears to be to be profoundly vulnerable."
The tall, mustachioed Maduro — the new face of Chávismo — has had a rocky start since taking center stage last month. Unlike the glad-handing Chávez, who was constantly kissing, embracing, and hugging his countrymen, the former bus driver appears aloof and disconnected.
Maduro’s speaking style is stolid, especially when compared to his mentor’s jocular verbosity. Chávez often spoke for hours in televised monologues, working in slanders against his opponents, discussions of his love life, and even jokes about his diarrhea.
Maduro, who has increasingly opted to wear shirts of any hue save red, the color of Chávez and the revolution, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the opposition, and especially their insistence that the government release a full medical report on the ailing president.
In doing so, Maduro has seemingly hurt himself by giving overly optimistic reports on Chávez, which were subsequently contradicted by others.
"So far, Maduro has proven to be a much less articulate and charismatic speaker than Chávez," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "The opposition would probably like him to continue talking."
Maduro also has another disadvantage. Since 1999, Chávez has been able to blame the country’s problems on the country’s old political elite and the moneyed class. Fourteen years into the revolution, that’s a tougher sell.
"Maduro has to take some responsibility for the problems facing the country," says a member of the opposition’s MUD umbrella group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He just can’t blame everything on Acción Democrática or Copei [formerly Venezuela’s two largest political parties]. He has to take some ownership and say that Chávismo has had its share of mistakes as well."
Still, it’s too early to count Chávismo or Maduro out. Since being named foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has been able to steer clear of domestic controversies, and has avoided accusations of taking advantage of his position for personal gain.
"No scandals or corruption cases have been linked to him, unlike other Chávistas," said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. Maduro is also fortunate in that he is facing a demoralized, weakened, and divided opposition, especially in the wake of losing the presidential race in October and a poor showing in the December gubernatorial races. Nonetheless, he estimated that Maduro would lose up to half of the votes Chávez won in the October election.
"Maduro may go to the center to seek support," said Yorde. "He’s definitely not like [Finance and Planning Minister Jorge] Giordani or [former Vice President Elias] Jaua, who would go further to the left."
Close to the president and the Castro brothers in Cuba, Maduro has political room to tweak some of Chávez’s more radical economic policies. Expropriations of private companies and lands have proven to be controversial, resulting in lower investments by private companies. Foreign exchange controls have also been a disaster, distorting the economy and making Venezuela one of the most expensive countries in Latin America.
Chávismo’s future, however, likely depends on what happens to Chávez. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Jan. 7 that the president, who remains in a hospital in Havana, continues to fight a respiratory infection that has made breathing difficult. He gave no other details, and the government has never said whether the president is on ventilator.
So, for now, the politicians are jostling to fill the temporary vacuum. Opposition leaders have suggested that, in Chavez’s absence, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello should be named interim president until new elections can be held, as the constitution mandates when the president is unable to serve. Maduro and Cabello have both disagreed, saying that the inauguration date isn’t mandatory and that Chávez should be given more time to recover before being declared unfit for the presidency. That doesn’t mean they’re entirely on the same page, however.
Both men, who represent different factions of Chávismo, have also repeatedly denied rumors of a split between them. Cabello is backed by the party’s military wing, and favors less Cuban influence in the country. Maduro is head of the civilian wing, and would continue close ties with Havana. "The stakes are sufficiently high so the PSUV will stay together at least until things become clearer," says Grais-Targow.
But if Chávez can’t serve and Cabello becomes interim president, all bets are off, analysts said. The absence of Chávez might encourage Cabello, a former vice president himself, to make a power grab. "Cabello taking over as interim president wouldn’t be good for Maduro at all," said Yorde. (While he publicly supports Maduro, he’s an ambitious politician and it certainly seems plausible that he might have his own designs on the presidency.)
While Chávez’s health concerns play out, Maduro is unlikely to take any major decisions. Chávez had been expected to devalue the currency this month to help the government close a yawning fiscal deficit, made worse by a boost in government spending before the October presidential vote. The government presently pegs the bolívar at 4.3 to the dollar. Analysts have suggested that a devaluation could take it to 8, which is still a far cry from the 18 today’s rate is 185 it is trading on the black market.
The spending spree on social programs and voter handouts that the government went on before the last election also depleted international reserves. The country’s liquid currency reserves have fallen to about $7 billion, good for about three months of imports. Chronic shortages of spare parts and foodstuffs have grown worse as the government has been forced to cut imports. Venezuela imports about 70 percent of the goods it consumes.
But any devaluation would hurt Maduro politically, especially as it would spur inflation — already the highest in the region — and lead to price increases on most foods. Maduro also is unlikely to attack the country’s crime problem. Last year, nearly 22,000 Venezuelans were murdered, this in a country of 29 million. By contrast, the United States with its population of 330 million, had 12,000 murders. Faced with these challenges, Maduro or anyone would have a difficult time trying to fill Chavez’s place.
In the days when he was a loyal footsoldier in the revolution, Maduro was known for saying, "with Chávez, all things are possible, and without him, nothing is."
This week, he’s likely hoping he was wrong.