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A date with Bolívar

Maduro may well be the government candidate, but the next elections in Venezuela will be a plebiscite on Chávez’s rule

The confirmation that Hugo Chávez is by no means cured turns the upcoming regional and local elections in Venezuela into a second round of the presidential ones, which Chávez won easily against Henrique Capriles Radonski in October. And if these elections were a plebiscite on Chávez, the next ones will be about his system. Like all Messianic leaders with a special empathy with the people (in this case more to do with race and class than with the land), Chávez has not named a successor who can compare with him. Nicolás Maduro, for whom Chávez has bidden the vote, is a dim reflection of the president, rooted in the labor unions, and possessing a doglike loyalty to his chief.

And what is the Chávez legacy, whether or not he himself shows up at his self-proclaimed date with history? Since 1999 the government has expropriated 2,340 estates totaling 3.6 million hectares in favor of 175,000 landless farmers; created missions dispensing healthcare, education and daily subsistence that have enabled the inveterate poor to know what, for example, a dentist is; and, in general, given the lower half of the population pyramid expectations they had never previously known. But Venezuela is also the land perceived by Latin American opinion as the most corrupt in the region; for a decade its inflation has exceeded 20 percent and in 2011 that figure hit 28 percent. The dollar is pegged at 4.3 bolivars, and citizens have a generous ceiling of $2,500 for spending abroad; while the crime rate yields precedence only to the world champions of violence, always in Central America.

Chávez is obsessed by history, and has time and again reserved a niche for himself in the pantheon of Latin American independence

The governors of the seven states still in the hands of the opposition are back again as candidates. Two states are crucial. Miranda, which includes part of Caracas, where the unified anti-Chávista movement's leader, Henrique Capriles, is playing to-be-or-not-to-be against Elías Jaua, a former vice-president; and Zulia, the petroleum state, where Pablo Pérez will appeal to what is probably the most anti-Chávista mass of opinion in the whole of Venezuela. Though illness has prevented Chávez from campaigning, such is the importance he gives to these elections that he has put four ministers to work on them, including the powerful monolith of the Interior Ministry, Tarek el Aissami, who is running in Aragua; and that lately of Defense, General Harry Rangel, campaigning in Trujillo. Lastly, in Barinas, Chávez's home state, his elder brother Adán, an über-Marxist ideologist and close advisor, is running where it is unimaginable that the vote might go otherwise than to the "dynasty." In this landscape, the multi-millionaire Capriles Radonski disappears if he loses, while any loss of governorships held by the opposition will fuel the Chavist party's hopes for the future.

Charismatic as always, Chávez has faced his fourth operation and 12th trip to Havana in his usual style, naming as successor his foreign minister and vice-president, Nicolás Maduro -- who has clung to him tighter than his underwear -- while having yet to spell out the name of his illness. As the political scientist Milagros Socorro puts it, his appearance last Friday to talk about the inexorable progress of his disease "was not to admit the truth, but to make a desperate appeal for unity in the ranks, which include some who lean over the patient's bed to take bites out of him." She was thinking of Diosdado Cabello, another veteran of the old coup crew, well connected in the army, and more polished in manner than Maduro, who is hard to envisage as a successor.

Hugo Chávez Frías is obsessed by history, past and future, and has time and again reserved a niche for himself in the pantheon of Latin American independence. True to his words that the "nation is really only beginning" with his rule, he wanted to end it with two other resounding dates, both 200th anniversaries: 2021, of the battle of Carabobo, and 2030, of the death of Simón Bolívar. It is not now clear whether he will show up for either of these dates.

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