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What Would Hugo Chávez Do?

How would Hugo Chávez have responded to Venezuela's collapsing economy? Almost certainly not how President Maduro is doing it.

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On March 5, Venezuelans marked the second anniversary of the death of former President Hugo Chávez. The government headed by his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, kicked the day off with a midnight fireworks display.

Yet as the fireworks subsided, one question lingered in the minds of many: What would Chávez do about Venezuela’s collapsing economy if he were alive?

The answer has a lot to do with the way Maduro was chosen, and how he fails to measure up to his mentor.

On March 5, Venezuelans marked the second anniversary of the death of former President Hugo Chávez. The government headed by his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, kicked the day off with a midnight fireworks display.

Yet as the fireworks subsided, one question lingered in the minds of many: What would Chávez do about Venezuela’s collapsing economy if he were alive?

The answer has a lot to do with the way Maduro was chosen, and how he fails to measure up to his mentor.

Venezuela’s problems are severe. The country, already in a full-blown recession, is confronting the possibility of three-digit inflation. Due to the collapse in the price of oil, the government’s budget deficit is in double-digit territory, and consumers are waiting in long lines for essential goods such as medicine or flour. Venezuela is also one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Shockingly, in the months since the crisis began, Maduro has done…practically nothing.

He has not implemented any major efforts to bring sanity back to public finance. He has refused to dismantle the four-tier exchange rate system that is the main source of chaos in the economy. He has done nothing to lay the groundwork for a healthy, productive economy outside of oil, the country’s only export.

Instead of defaulting on foreign debt, he has slashed imports — with effects that are dramatically illustrated by the empty shelves in the country’s supermarkets.

This deer-in-the-headlights approach to governance has a great deal to do with the uncertainty that accompanied the start of Maduro’s term in office.

Two years ago, tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in front of Hugo Chávez’s coffin, devastated by the death of their leader. This honest show of emotion riveted the nation, and when the campaign to pick a successor to Chávez began a few days after his burial, everyone assumed that Maduro would coast to victory.

The fact that he ended up winning a disputed election by a single percentage point sent shock waves through the country’s political elite.

Maduro had squandered much of the political capital he inherited from Chávez. Immediately, members of his coalition — an unstable mix of rapacious military officers and ideological left-wingers — began suspecting that Chávez had handed his throne to the wrong person. Maduro’s dithering on policy issues has everything to do with his desperate need to gain legitimacy among this core chavista constituency.

The military wants to preserve price controls because they’re a major source of its income. Whether by smuggling gasoline or using access to cheap dollars to benefit from arbitrage, the officer corps thrives on the distortions in the economy, so corresponding reforms could well cost the government the support of the armed forces. Maduro, well aware of their importance in his coalition, has stocked his cabinet with men in uniform.

The left-wing socialists, the other part of his coalition, will pounce on Maduro for any steps they deem to be “neoliberal.” For example, he has been toying for months with the idea of raising the ridiculously low price of gas, a subsidy that costs the state oil monopoly tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. The fact that Maduro has not done so yet is a tacit admission that he lacks the necessary political capital.

Which brings us back to Chávez. If there is one thing both detractors and supporters acknowledge about him, it’s that the former Comandante was the undisputed leader of his coalition. Thanks to his charisma and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of the military, Chávez was far more adept at imposing his will on his own party as well as on the country.

Yet he was also more of a pragmatist than many realize. As an unapologetic populist, he guarded his popularity with his life. He would have never let policy choices drive his numbers below twenty percent. Maduro’s approval rating is now approaching that threshold.

Chávez would have suffered from the dip in oil prices, but he would have also come up with policies to avert the pain currently being inflicted on Venezuela’s population. While Maduro has little choice but to maintain the policies that have ruined Venezuela, Chávez would have been free from the need to pander.

In this regard, Maduro comes off as a more rigid and far less savvy version of Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelans are waking up to this fact. Here’s what Alejandro Herrera, an auto mechanic in a poor Caracas neighborhood, recently told the AFP news agency: “When Chávez was alive, everything was different. He knew how to lead the country. It is sad to see how Maduro is destroying everything he left. I will always be chavista by heart…but I will never be madurista.”

Maduro likes to claim that he is “the son of Chávez.” But to judge by the words of Herrera and others like him, the fruit seems to have fallen far from the tree.

FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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