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Chávez has no substitute

Neither Maduro nor his rival Cabello fulfill the first requisite of a populist leader: charisma

Nicolás Maduro is not the successor to Hugo Chávez. For some time at least, he will be only a substitute, a replacement: while a successor, however great his respect for his predecessor’s work, is someone definitive who accumulates responsibilities of his own. But no transformation from substitute to successor is in sight.

The substitute has risen step by step: union official, lawmaker, foreign minister. And lastly vice-president, but only when the Bolivarian leader was already touched by cancer. A faithful mastiff, devout in the cult of the ailing president. The Chávez movement is casting them as Allah and his Prophet. The Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, also thought he had an anointed substitute in Juan Manuel Santos, but soon found that the new president is a successor, walking a road of his own.

Neither Maduro nor his supposed rival, Diosdado Cabello, fulfill the first requisite of a populist leader (Chávez being a textbook example): governing by the word, the specific vehicle of charisma. This does not exactly mean that Chávez speaks well, but that his power over words has been such as to make him the “news agency of the people.” As for Maduro and Cabello, it is not that they speak better or worse than Chávez, but that they have nothing to say outside what is frozen in the Holy Writ of Chavism, the Sunna of their Koran being what the great leader did in this or that circumstance. And the fact that there is only a substitute, rather than a successor, may bring consequences for the Bolivarian bloc in Latin America.

The fact that there is only a substitute, rather than a successor, may bring consequences for the Bolivarian bloc in Latin America

The Castro brothers in Cuba, even while cultivating the Maduro option in the event that Chávez cannot return, know well that nothing will be the same again. In economic matters it is true there will be no immediate changes, but in the longer term it is far from clear if the new leader will be able to keep up the generosity to Latin American regimes, which, according to the opposition, has already cost Venezuela 52 billion dollars through to 2010. For example, will Maduro keep the promise to enlarge the Cienfuegos refinery in Cuba to treat the crude that Caracas gives to the Castro regime? But it is, above all, in politics where the coverage may grow threadbare. Would Maduro be capable of forcing Havana to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas, or failing that, torpedo the occasion? For the Castros, the absence of Chávez, while not a blow like the fall of the Soviet Union, would introduce a margin of uncertainty.

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega needs to continue to receive the annual input of a billion dollars to square his budget and “subsidize” enough voters to keep him in the presidency. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa is in a different case. Thanks to soaring oil prices, his public coffers have received some $90 billion since 2007, 60 percent more than in the seven previous years under presidents that Correa terms “oligarchic.” Correa’s natural temptation would be to snub the substitute and to press for a real successor, though Ecuador may not be strong enough to do this. The case of the Bolivian leader Evo Morales, with his country’s oil and gas resources, is like that of Correa, although in his case he might lose an international smokescreen. While all eyes were fixed on Chávez, it was easier for Morales to carry forward his “indigenization” of Bolivia. This would be more difficult with Maduro. And lastly Colombia, though outside the Bolivarian club, may find that the FARC guerrillas, in their sanctuaries across the Venezuelan border, may not fear the substitute as they do Chávez, which may affect the peace negotiations.

Chávez has always treated his acolyte as a boy, joking in public about his gluttonous taste for sandwiches. Not much of a way to treat your successor. Without Chávez, Chavism will probably remain. But it clearly needs a prophet.

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