Chávez came to power after forty years (1958-1998) of two-party democracy decomposed into what struck many Venezuelans as a system for corrupt political elites clinging to power. Soon after winning election in 1998, Chávez raised expectations in rewriting the constitution and promising to rescue this oil-rich homeland from neoliberal economics, to revolutionize democracy for the poor, and to unite Latin America and the Caribbean against “imperialist forces.”
Helped by a booming state-run oil sector and personal panache, Chávez’s policies penetrated and reshaped the social fabric of Venezuela. His ego, aversion to dialogue, and reflexive distrust of liberal institutions stain his legacy. Poverty measured by purchasing power is down, but public services remain substandard and crime has skyrocketed; policies for self-help community participation function but don’t reinforce societal accountability over the state; and efforts to design a new architecture for democratic governance faltered in the face of opposition pressure and Chávez’s intransigence. New international alliances gelled but never cemented as his reputation waned and waxed.
The post-Chávez election
For Maduro, Chávez’s legacy is summed up in one word: patria (fatherland). If Maduro, a former union leader and then a loyal foreign minister in the previous government, follows the Chávez playbook in 2012’s elections, he will tamp down the Leftist discourse and situate his platform in the nationalist sentiments chavismo cultivates and deploys. This will include nationalism’s jingoistic side—depicting opponent Capriles as an inauthentic Venezuelan, a piti-yanqui.
For Capriles, the relevant part of the Chávez legacy is the social question. During the campaign, Capriles ran with a center-right party slate but as a center-left politician promoting a future of progress. He proposed deepening Chávez’s social policies, but still lacked populist credibility. After Chávez, will Capriles continue the same strategy or change gears? Can he frame Maduro, a man who lacks the charisma Chávez used so effectively to link nationalist and ideological rhetoric, as an out of touch bureaucrat?
Any strategy must make immediate impact because the convoking of elections in thirty days means little time for either candidate to counterpunch. As the successor to a hugely popular, deceased president, the new leader of Venezuela’s most powerful political party (The United Socialist Party of Venezuela), and the man with the power of incumbency, Maduro has the upper hand. But he is also untested electorally and could stumble, and Capriles will be right there behind him.
Political campaigns are not ideal moments for national reconciliation. Chávez was as polarizing a figure as any in Latin America, and thus reconciliation for Venezuelans may be far off. Still, the death of Chávez presents Venezuela with a familiar problem: preventing the firestorm with its capacity for problem solving and compromise.
Michael McCarthy is a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Victor Soares/ABr. CC BY 3.0.