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CARACAS, Venezuela – With the death of Hugo Chávez, the future of the Bolivarian revolution is in the hands of his political heir, Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
That’s the consensus among political analysts.
“We can rule out [President of the National Assembly] Diosdado Cabello as a candidate in the new round of elections,” said Leopoldo Colmenares, a professor at the Department of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Simón Bolívar. “With the disappearance of Chávez, [the chavista candidate] will be Maduro.”
The government will hold the state funeral service for Chávez on the morning of March 8 and have called for seven days of mourning following his passing.
Article 233 of the Bolivarian Constitution, passed in 1999, states that “in the event of the absolute absence of the President of the Republic within the first four years of the constitutional period, there will be new universal, direct and secret elections within the following 30 consecutive days.”
The vice president can only definitively assume the presidency if there are less than two years left before the end of the presidential mandate.
The new elections are expected to result in a contest between Maduro and the governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in the presidential election in October 2012.
“The Constitution is ambiguously worded, but nobody’s disputing that elections must be held,” said Venezuelan sociologist Rafael Uzcátegui of the human rights foundation Provea.
Uzcátegui said Maduro will have a better chance of winning if the election is held soon.
“If the chavista leadership focuses all of its energy around Chávez and quickly announces elections, it is very likely that Maduro would win because the candidate would, in effect, continue to be Chávez,” Uzcátegui said. “But if the election is postponed, the memory of Chávez will be diluted and the candidate would be more Maduro than Chávez.”
Héctor Briceño, a professor at the Center for Development Studies at Venezuela’s Universidad Central, said the big question is whether the chavista movement will maintain its internal unity.
“The members of the chavista movement have a high probability of staying in power if they are able to institutionalize the revolution beyond the figure of President Chávez,” Briceño said. “Otherwise, the reallocation of positions of power will increase the chances of success for the opposition.”
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born in Sabatena, in the state of Barinas, in 1954. He studied military sciences and arts at the Venezuela Military Academy, where he graduated as a 2nd Lt. in 1975, according to his official biography.
In 1982, Chávez created the Bolivarian Army-200 (EB-200), in honor of the bicentennial of the birth of independence leader Simón Bolívar (1783-1830). In 1989, EB-200 became MBR-200, the civil-military organization that led the failed coup of 1992.
“The first step in Chávez’s political career was his military insurrection in the 1992 coup,” Uzcátegui said. “And the fact that he assumed responsibility in front of TV cameras.”
Chávez was arrested in 1992 and released two years later by then-President Rafael Caldera.
In 1997, alongside his old military colleagues, he founded the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), which served as his political springboard, alongside groups such as Venezuela’s Movement toward Socialism (MAS).
A change in strategy
In 1998, Chávez, who by then held the rank of Lt. Col. and had earned a master’s degree in political science, decided to take a different path to reach the presidency.
“He abandoned the insurrectionary strategy to take part in elections,” Uzcátegui said. “He correctly read the moment and understood that it would be possible to win as a political outsider.”
It worked. In December 1998, Chávez was elected president with 56.24% of the vote.
“Under an anti-political banner, Chávez united a majority of the middle class, intellectuals, the media, businesspeople, and even the Church to obtain political support,” Colmenares said. “Then, he maintained his support among the country’s less fortunate.”
In 1999, president Chávez promoted a Constitutional reform to provide a new foundation for the country, which became known as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. From that point forward, his administration was marked by growing interventionism in the country’s economy.
In 2004, in a referendum called by the opposition, the Venezuelan people voted to keep Chávez in power. That year, he introduced what were known as “missions,” which were social programs that allowed him to win over popular support, win the electoral battle and create a brand for his government, Colmenares added.
“When he created the missions, Chávez connected with the lower classes,” he added. “The spectacular rise in oil prices helped him pass out a lot of crumbs that maintained his popularity.”
An intense propaganda campaign also contributed to the construction of his presidential power. In addition to creating a plethora of official communications channels, he achieved the closure, bankruptcy and self-censorship of a variety of private media outlets, Colmenares said.
“Chávez also purged the Armed Forces. Little by little, he removed officers who were allegedly not loyal to him, thereby building his own praetorian guard,” Colmenares added. “Also in 2002, he took control of the state oil company PDVSA and fired more than 20,000 technicians.”
In 2008, Chávez created the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), an agglomeration of the various political movements that supported him.
Uzcátegui said Chávez leaves behind four main legacies in Venezuela: the myth of the redemption of the poor through the redistribution of oil revenues; a popular form of political worship of Chávez as an individual; the devastation of the autonomy of social movements; and the absence of meaning from leftist political speech.
Colmenares said Chávez created a fictitious class struggle.
“The people against the bourgeoisie, with the bourgeoisie defined as anyone who did not share in the chavista project,” he added. “Chávez created divisions and sowed hatred among Venezuelans. It will take two or three generations to wash away all of the hate. He did not bring the neediest classes out of poverty. He merely made a lot of people dependent on government handouts.”