Is this Hugo Chavez’s heir?

The comandante’s chosen successor launches his campaign for the presidency

Is this Hugo’s heir?

Rodrigo Abd/AP

Is this Hugo’s heir?
Rodrigo Abd/AP

The early days of Venezuela’s election campaign have featured the use of a corpse as a political prop, the intensification of an already creepy personality cult, and the incumbent candidate, Nicolás Maduro, accusing opponent Henrique Capriles, whose platform emphasizes “social inclusion” and poverty reduction, of being a fascist.

It is not, in other words, a restrained and thoughtful campaign—and even that description is perhaps generous. Democratic campaigns at least attempt to be fair fights; this one does not.

On April 14, Capriles must beat not just Maduro, but also the ghost of recently deceased president Hugo Chávez, most media, the military and the country’s supposedly non-partisan institutions, which Chávez politicized and tried to transform into tools of his “Bolivarian Revolution.”

On his own, Maduro, a former foreign minister who was named interim president after Chávez died, is a beatable candidate. A bear of a man and long-time Chávez loyalist, he lacks his predecessor’s charisma. “That wouldn’t matter so much if the economy was growing,” says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. But it’s not. Chávez used subsidized oil exports to buy favour across Latin America and the Caribbean. He channelled revenue into social “missions” in poor neighbourhoods, instead of investing in maintenance and equipment to increase production. Infrastructure has decayed. Hospitals and schools are in rough shape. Violent crime is rampant.

A day of reckoning might have loomed for Chávez. But he was able to avoid or at least delay this because of the sheer force of his public persona. He railed against America. He sang on television. People loved him. Even Chavistas—his loyal followers—who might have found fault with some aspects of his rule were more likely to blame his advisers or those close to him than Chávez himself.

Maduro doesn’t have this cushion, and he knows it. “I am not Chávez—speaking strictly in terms of the intelligence, charisma, historical force, leadership capacity and spiritual grandeur of our comandante,” he said this week. But Maduro also knows that his best shot is to run as if he were somehow channelling the dead leader. The president’s body will remain on display throughout the campaign, and perhaps longer. The government is busing people in to look at it. Maduro said it will be embalmed like the corpses of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. “We are all one family. Our father is Hugo Chávez,” Maduro said.

Implicit is the claim that those who don’t believe they are Chávez’s children are traitorous, not part of the family. It’s a natural outgrowth of the intentionally polarizing policies Chávez pursued during his 14 years in power.

Especially after a short-lived coup against him in 2002, Chávez tried to cleanse Venezuela’s institutions of disloyal elements. He stacked the public service, judiciary and military. He centralized power, weakening local governments and the National Assembly. State media fell into line. Private media risked closure.

The results were on display when Maduro was sworn in as interim president last week. He described the military as “the armed forces of Chávez,” pumping his fist in the air. Watching from the gallery, Defence Minister Adm. Diego Molero returned the salute. Molero is calling on voters to “give a good thrashing to all those fascists” in the opposition, despite a constitutional ban on the military taking sides in political contests.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state—which includes parts of the capital, Caracas—who often wears sneakers and a ball cap, knows he faces an uneven playing field. He has accurately said his battle is against the state. But he has pledged to fight on anyway. “Nicolás, I’m not going to give you a free pass,” he said in a news conference, eschewing polite honorifics. “You will have to beat me with votes.”

Victory for Capriles is a long shot, though not a completely hopeless one. In the presidential election last October, he earned 44 per cent of the vote, the best any opposition candidate has fared against Chávez. To increase that vote, he will need to run a “pragmatic campaign against the emotional outpouring of the Chavistas,” says Diana Negroponte, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Capriles faces additional challenges this time around. Last October, he capitalized on public cynicism and exhaustion with Chávez’s long stay in office. It’s no longer enough to run on his opponent’s failings. “He will have to make it clearer than he did last time which policies he will maintain and which he will scrap,” says Victor Bulmer-Thomas, an associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House.

It is a testament to Chávez’s political success that Capriles is not proposing a radical revolution of his own. He can’t. Chávez has shifted the middle in Venezuelan politics.

“The centre ground has now reached the point where you cannot be elected unless you are willing to carry out these social programs using oil wealth to support the poorest groups in society,” says Bulmer-Thomas.

Yet many of these programs function as components of Chavismo socialism, tied to a political movement rather than the supposedly non-partisan organs of the state. Cuba sends doctors to Venezuelan medical clinics in exchange for cheap oil. This arrangement would likely evaporate were Capriles to gain power.

A more serious potential problem is whether Chavistas would accept defeat. The defence minister has already declared his loyalty to the current government. Besides the regular army, Chávez created a “Bolívarian militia” that answers directly to the president and whose members swear an oath to “consolidate the socialist revolution.” Opponents also fear armed civilian gangs that might fight for the government.

A Capriles win would result in political violence, predicts Grace Jaramillo, a teaching fellow at Queen’s University. “The Chavista movement will not give away power easily.” It’s unlikely Maduro’s Chavistas will lose next month’s election, avoiding a political crisis for the time being. But unless Maduro reforms the way Venezuela is governed, one is probably inevitable. Inflation is close to 20 per cent per year. The country’s fiscal deficit is estimated at between nine and 12 per cent of its GDP. These are not sustainable numbers.

“One way or another they’re going to have to face these problems,” says Terry McCoy, director of the Latin American Business Environment Program at the University of Florida. “There’s going to be some hard decisions—and that may create political friction.”

Maduro may then be forced to look for support among those he lambastes as traitors and coup mongers. Venezuela’s opposition has learned to campaign in the lower-income hilltop barrios it once ignored. Maduro may similarly see the wisdom in reaching out to his middle-class opponents. But today, with Chávez barely gone and Venezuela as divided as ever, such a day seems a long way off.