Hugo Chávez speaks to supporters protesting the US’s expanding military presence in Colombia, November 2009. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Whatever his flaws, and they were many, Hugo Chávez was a larger-than-life figure who treated ordinary Venezuelans with a rare degree of respect, admiration and love. This is why millions will mourn his passing. But as his body lies in state, Venezuelans must now confront the question: What next?
The answer, in part, will be known within thirty days of his death, the window of time in which Venezuela must hold a presidential election. The race will pit Vice President (and now interim President) Nicolás Maduro against Henrique Capriles Radonski, whom Chávez defeated by an eleven-point margin last October. In light of the emotional outpouring triggered by Chávez’s death, the strong showing by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the December gubernatorial elections and, not least, the high level of satisfaction Venezuelans have shown with the policies enacted by Chávez, Maduro will probably triumph. But it is unclear what a Maduro presidency will look like. “Having spent his political life in the shadow of Chávez and without having shown any really independent opinions, it is not entirely clear who Maduro is,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, rose through the ranks of Chavismo. He was elected to the National Assembly in 2000, became its speaker in 2005 and was appointed foreign minister in 2006. He held that post until last October, when Chávez named him vice president. Above all, Maduro is seen as a Chávez loyalist. But it’s not clear what that means now that Chávez is gone.
The overriding imperative for Maduro, assuming he’s elected, will be to maintain Chavista unity. Given his lack of charisma, and the existence of quite distinct (if unofficial) factions within the PSUV, this will be no easy task. Maduro is unlikely to rock the boat by proposing any sweeping changes, at least for the foreseeable future. Since policies now in place have given Venezuelans free healthcare, education and housing, along with highly subsidized food—helping to cut poverty in half between 2003 and 2008, with extreme poverty falling by 72 percent—this is welcome news. But there are differing opinions about Maduro’s politics. George Ciccariello-Maher, author of a forthcoming history of contemporary Venezuela, views him as a “moderate” who is seen by grassroots Chavistas as a “safe choice” and a “stable caretaker” for the Bolivarian Revolution. Smilde argues that within Chavismo “Maduro is on the left.” And veteran Venezuela expert Steve Ellner has noted the “hard-line” positions Maduro took as a union leader in the early 2000s, when he favored breaking with the existing union federation (controlled by anti-Chávez forces) to “construct a force for real transformation.”