Though he's not on the ballot in Sunday's presidential election here in Venezuela, there's no doubt that the late president Hugo Chávez and his legacy are at the heart of the campaign to replace him.
At first glance, Chávez supporters certainly seem likely to back his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, the former foreign minister, vice president and now acting president. Maduro has invoked the spirit of Chávez at every stop. Last week, he chirpily claimed that a talking bird appeared to him to tell him that Chávez's ghost had blessed his campaign.
But if Chávez's ghost were interested in choosing the best guarantor of chavismo, he might have done better to bless the opposition's candidate.
If you agree that the ultimate goal of chavismo is to perpetuate a lasting social-welfare net for the poorest Venezuelans, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles may well be better placed to deliver than Maduro.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second most-populous state, challenged Chávez for the presidency last October. While he fell short by a 11 percent margin, he came closer to defeating Chávez than any other previous opposition challenger in fourteen years. He did so by promising to keep the best of chavismo in place—in 2012 and again in the current campaign, Capriles has pledged to maintain the misiones that Chávez instituted to boost health care, literacy, education and housing among Venezuelan's neediest.
Chavistas certainly have a strong claim that for the first time since the discovery of the Mene Grande oil field in 1914 and oil production began in earnest in 1918, a significant share of the country's oil wealth finally fell into the hands of the poorest Venezuelans. And the two-party duopoly of the center-right COPEI and the center-left Democratic Action crumbled in 1998 after years of petrodollar-fueled corruption. So Capriles's campaign strategy, to a degree, is to admit that we're all chavistas now. This time around he's waged a more populist, more aggressive campaign that's even reminiscent of Chávez's tone, while Maduro is running a more defensive effort.
But there's no doubt that Venezuela's economy is under some stress these days, as Capriles never fails to mention at campaign stops. Under Maduro, Venezuela has essentially effected two devaluations in the past two months, guaranteeing that inflation, already running perilously high, will continue to climb. Under Chávez, oil production has fallen by nearly one-third according to some estimates, and it's undeniable that the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, has spent more on government-directed social programs than on capital improvements to update the country's refineries or to develop technologies to clean Venezuela’s heaviest crude oil.
Gasoline subsidies, in place since before the Chávez era, mean that gasoline prices here are the lowest in the world, and Venezuelans, who consider cheap gas a birthright, can fill up their tanks for less than a dollar. Subsidies to Cuba and other countries in the Caribbean and Central America through PetroCaribe and finance deals to China that swap debt for guaranteed oil over the next 10 years have also sapped the Venezuelan treasury.
That's in addition to a bloated public sector following years of ad hoc expropriations, a rising budget deficit, a growing dependence on imports for basic staples, an underdeveloped nonoil economy, increasing power outages and some of the worst crime rates in South America.
Unless the next president of Venezuela is planning on a huge bump in global oil prices, he'll face a lot of hard choices that Chávez rarely faced, thanks to growing demand for petroleum throughout much of the 2000s. Those choices will become even harsher if oil prices drop in the next six years, and many of the gains that Chávez's supporters made in the past decade could disappear in a matter of days.
Capriles, who has run in the vein of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has waged much of his campaign on the basis of improving the economy, and he's already made clear he's willing to eliminate previously untouchable aspects of chavista economic policy, especially oil subsidies to Cuba.
It's hard to believe that Maduro, ever the loyal soldier to Chávez, would have the institutional credibility within the governing PSUV, even after winning his own mandate, to stand up to the rampant corruption that now lies at the heart of Venezuela's government. After a decade and a half in power, even governments in countries with more deeply entrenched respect for state institutions, separation of powers and checks and balances have a tendency toward corruption. British Columbia's Liberal-run government faces ejection in May elections after just 12 years in power amid daily scandal headlines, for example.
It seems even less likely that Maduro could dislodge the other key policymakers that have directed the Venezuelan economy for over a decade, such as National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, finance minister Jorge Giordani and energy minister Rafael Ramírez. So even if some inner-guard chavistas realize that Venezuela needs a new policy direction, Maduro will be hard-pressed to do so.
If Capriles win Sunday's election, he'll still be constrained by a National Assembly dominated by Maduro's PSUV and its allies. So he wouldn't be able to enact drastic economic reform, even if he wanted to do so. But his victory would bring fresh air to Miraflores, the presidential palace, and perhaps more importantly, his victory would bring Venezuela back to a more normalized politics.
But with the Venezuelan economy at significant risk, Capriles may well be the better hope to achieve a budget settlement that both corrects the excesses of chavismo, while also formalizing the social-welfare programs of the Chávez era in a more permanent safety net.
If he wins Sunday's election, it will be precisely because he's convinced enough of Chávez's softer supporters over the years that he can secure the gains of chavismo better than chavismo's own candidate.
Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and editor of the foreign policy blog Suffragio.org.