Nothing matters more to Venezuelans these days in a country left in suspense than the expected pharaonic farewell to their president for the past 14 years. And presumably nothing will be more important for them in the next few weeks than the elections to replace Hugo Chávez. A date with the ballot box for the vice president and chosen disciple, Nicolás Maduro, who, with the military’s consent, has assumed all powers in the electoral interregnum. Maduro is already tying up the loose ends of the succession process, including those of the basest emotional appeal as suggested by his attribution of the death of Chávez to an imperialist conspiracy.
However, in the months to come there is no greater incognito than that of how long the so-called Bolivarian revolution will outlast its inventor and ideologue in a nation as polarized as Venezuela. Chavism has had no other reference than that of Hugo Chávez himself. The autocratic travesty of democracy — that has changed the lives of millions of people for the better and of many others for the worst — from 1999 all the way to the hospital bed in Havana from which Chávez returned to die in his own country has been the regime of a single person of indomitable will.
It is unlikely that the mark he has left will disappear in a few months. It is even more unlikely, if the case may be, that Maduro, who totally lacks the charisma that allowed the dead leader to claim authorship of all his regime’s successes and none of its failures, will be granted the indulgence of his fellow countrymen to deal with the flood of problems currently afflicting Venezuela, a country with a fractured economy that requires more than the recent 32-percent devaluation of the bolivar. It also appears unlikely that the next president, whoever it may be, will have easy access to the coffers of the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela or the Central Bank to finance his political whims, or for that matter convince his fellow countrymen that all of the country’s ills derive from the Yankee enemy. The Chavist myth, bathed in petroleum, has obscured the reality of a nation whose public spending is unsustainable, which lacks basic products and is held back by decrepit infrastructure and a non-competitive industrial sector.
Chávez’s exit also leaves a significant void, if not to say open terror, beyond the borders of Venezuela. The populist leader worked tirelessly to transform Venezuela into an international player, although at the cost on occasions of forging alliances with despotic governments openly opposed to the United States, as in the case of Gaddafi’s Libya, North Korea, Iran and Syria. But the core of his foreign policy lay in establishing links with leftish regimes in Latin America, above all Cuba, thanks to the offer of cheap oil from a country with the big petroleum reserves. Whether buddy-priced oil continues to flow in the absence of the decisive ideological presence of Chávez is an open question.
With the death of Chávez, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador lose their closest ally and a powerful spokesman, and in the case of Argentina, someone who bought billions worth of bonds to save the country from bankruptcy. But no country more than Cuba depends so much on Caracas and the benevolence bestowed by Chávez upon his idol and friend Fidel Castro. The more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for the services of tens of thousands of Cuban professionals in Venezuela and a multitude of cooperation projects have over the past years constituted a vital source of support for the Communist regime. Nobody more than Havana knows that the disappearance of Chávez is a transcendental event.