Even in death, Chavez still an influential force in Venezuela

Even after his March 5 death, President Hugo Chavez continues to control Venezuela’s destiny. The question is, for how long? 

For Venezuelans, the answer can be dramatically different, depending on their political standpoint.

Staying on course

“What will change in Venezuela in a post-Chavez era? Nothing! Vice President Nicolas Maduro will win the election, and the Chavismo movement will continue in power,” said Roy Chaderton, the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. 

His comments match the statements of Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly. He announced in Caracas: “The Constitution is clear. In the event of the total absence of the president, the vacancy will be provisionally filled by the current vice president, according to the orders given of President Hugo Chavez.” 

The late president gave the order in December during one of his final live appearances. It came even before an interpretation of Article 233 of the Constitution, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the vice president will temporarily take lead of the country while carrying out the next election — set for April 14 — and in opposition to Article 299, which bans the vice president from being elected president.  

By doing so, Chavez supporters, known as Chavistas, tied down arguments of opposition leaders who thought they saw the possibility of a power struggle that might have given them hope of a split among Chavez followers. Such division, however, has proved to be wishful thinking. 

This whole episode has highlighted one of the key characteristics of the Chavismo: a monolithic structure based around the leadership of President Chavez. This political format always has defined the strategy of the revolutionary movement, which is to present a picture of total unity. It also has helped to strengthen and consolidate the power behind Chavez. 

The rigid structure put in place by Chavez and his supporters has provided ammunition not only for political enemies, but also for human rights organizations in and outside the country, which have pointed out that such fierce loyalty to Chavez’s orders eliminated any semblance of checks and balances and undermined institutions to the detriment of Venezuelan democracy. 

The president of the Congress told Venezuelans that “the time has come to begin to consider the Chavismo, driven by the leader Hugo Chavez, as a political, social and even religious ideology.”  

This political vision suggests a strategy of continuity aimed at ensuring perpetuity, immortalizing the revolutionary ideal embodied in Chavez and consolidating power for the benefit of the heirs of Chavismo.

Conflicts with Church

Throughout his 14 years in power, it is undeniable there has been an emotional connection between the Venezuelan people and Chavez on both sides of the political spectrum. Nobody remained indifferent or untouched by his personal style, and that connection will be forever linked to the fate of his project, leaving a legacy of a deeply divided country as a consequence of political polarization. 

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is pictured in a 2005 photo. CNS

The Catholic Church was one of those institutions that often found itself in Chavez’s firing line. He accused it publicly of being at the service of the opposition and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, and working against the interests of his party, and therefore, in his view, against the people. 

In a March 6 story, Catholic News Service noted that Church leaders lent support to a coup that overthrew Chavez for 48 hours in 2002, which led to a war of words between the Church and the president. The story went on to point out that Chavez, in a 2012 interview with Venezuelan state-owned television, said that “hopefully we can manage to establish a good relationship with the Catholic hierarchy and to work together for the country.” 

Auxiliary Bishop Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate of Caracas of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, taking a cautious position, said he considered it was too risky to try to prophesy what would happen in the country because the future was uncertain. But he said that, despite all the difficulties posed by the social, political and economic landscape, the Venezuelan Catholic Church was looking for internal renewal and strength to try and adjust to the new situation. 

Based on its dedication to service, he said, the Church would continue to fulfill its duties, especially focusing on the reconciliation of all Venezuelans and to try to consolidate its role as a moral reference for the country’s social values. 

Bishop Gonzalez said that what the future would bring from a political perspective was up to the people, who would have the electoral opportunity to set the future.

Slim hopes for opposition

For the Venezuelan opposition, the time ahead represents a rocky and unpredictable road, according to political analyst Robert Izurieta from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who said he considers the opposition to be challenged by what he called a “mourning electoral vote” in the forthcoming elections. The opposition, he said, has to face up to the ongoing creation of the Chavez myth without having much power to counteract its effects, at least for the time being. This argument is shared by Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center for Political Studies at the Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas. 

In Alarcon’s view, the opposition will have a very small window of opportunity in the next elections but only if Chavez voters resist replacing the figure of the main revolutionary leader with Maduro. However, he made it clear that it was impossible to ignore the fact that the voters were currently riding an emotional wave of mourning over Chavez’s death. Their vote for Maduro could be regarded as the ultimate tribute to Chavez. 

Moreover, with the series of activities organized in honor of the departed leader, the government is seeking to appeal to the feelings of the voters to pledge to an eternal political loyalty in order to keep the Chavez ideals alive. 

In any event, the coming elections represent a hard test for the opposition candidate, Enrique Capriles Radonski. 

It will all depend on whether he can keep the number of voters from the last election, when he ran against Chavez, or at least whether he can get a respectable amount of votes in order to maintain his leadership.

Long-term transition

The task for the opposition is to convince voters that with Chavez gone, new opportunities are open for Venezuela. But time is running out and they are facing an election without the possibility of organizing a proper political campaign. So all the political advantages lie with the Chavismo and its followers. 

Alarcon pointed out that the great challenge for the opposition is to avoid competing with the figure of Chavez and to try to keep the electoral competition limited to the battle between Capriles and Maduro. 

However, in the best-case scenario, Venezuela is on its way to entering a process that could be defined by a long-term transition, one that could be shaped not so much by the desire for power of Chavez’s political heirs, but by the country’s natural wealth based on its oil reserves.  

Under Chavez, oil revenues helped finance a wide social agenda for the poor, big question marks still remain over the improvement of the economy and numerous international alliances, particularly with countries such as Iran and Cuba, that have yet to prove they are based on ideological sympathies instead of monetary conveniences and help undermine Venezuela’s status in the international community as once a promoter of democracy. 

Sonia Schott writes from Washington, D.C.