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A man who made a mark

The death of Hugo Chávez ends a chapter in the history of Venezuela

The death of Hugo Chávez, after a hard two-year battle against his disease, marks the end of a chapter in the recent history of Venezuela, apart from the fact of his being head of state until the moment of his demise. His imminent disappearance had already been assumed by his compatriots after the dense governmental silence that surrounded his recent return from Havana. But this circumstance can hardly diminish the impact made on the land by a president who was sui generis, who remained in office for almost fourteen years, and who won election after election with a mixture of personal charisma, generosity in the use of petroleum revenues, populist rhetoric and skill in convincing many people that their lives would be better thanks to the Bolivarian revolution.

During all this time, Chávez has made practically every decision of any importance in Venezuela, while gradually taking over all of the country’s institutions and virtually every lever of power, giving a highly individual slant to his socialist regime — the unquestioned champion of the very poor, and devoid of any democratic counterweight.

This personal rule will no doubt now lead to the emergence of factions within the Chavist movement, all other personalities and their differences having so far been obscured by the brilliance of the leader. One of these is Nicolás Maduro, the designated successor, staunchly committed to the socialist catechism of Chávez. Another, more nationalist trend is represented by several prominent military officers, who on Tuesday conspicuously gathered round the vice-president.

The demise of Chávez — which on the international scene leaves the Cuban regime (long the cosseted recipient of Venezuelan oil) devoid of sponsors, also affecting to a lesser degree other leftist regimes in Latin America (with which Chávez shared crude oil and anti-imperialist rhetoric) — opens the way to a new presidential election. The electoral contest, in which Maduro’s rival will presumably be the centrist Henrique Capriles, defeated by Chávez last October, will show us the extent to which the Bolivarian revolution can survive without its inventor at the helm.

Halo of sainthood

Competing with the memory of Chávez will be a tough challenge for his detractors, and it is more than probable his successor will inherit the halo of sainthood and its power to draw votes in elections held under the emotional impact of the leader’s death. But personal regimes do not often survive their icons for long periods. The immense personality of Hugo Chávez and his unequaled capacity for connecting with large masses of Venezuelans enabled him to cope, politically unaffected, with his country’s grave problems.

But it seems extremely unlikely that his successor, whoever that is, will be able to marshal sufficient support to render tolerable the huge economic imbalances, the daily scarcities of supply, the widespread corruption and the rampant urban violence that have been afflicting the Caribbean country, problems which remain intact if not aggravated after the long rule of the late president.

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