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Chavism shows its cracks and fissures one year after leader’s death

Maduro struggling to keep Bolivarian Revolution alive

A mural of Chávez at the Fine Arts Museum in Caracas.
A mural of Chávez at the Fine Arts Museum in Caracas.AP

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has said on numerous occasions that his adversaries were convinced that the Bolivarian revolution had ended with Hugo Chávez’s demise.

Since the fiery Chávez – who governed the country for nearly 15 years – died of cancer one year ago, those who have been left to carry out that revolution are indeed trying to do so; with major difficulties.

Some sociologists and political analysts wonder if the current nationwide anti-government protests would have ignited, as they did three weeks ago, if Chávez were still alive.

“Is Chávez really gone? Are things the same?” asks Colette Capriles, a sociology and philosophy professor at Simón Bolívar University (USB) in Caracas. “One gets the sensation that none of this would have happened if Chávez was still governing. It’s as if the changes that really occurred [when Maduro took over] are being put to the test.”

If Maduro is doing things differently, it is because he has to”

Certainly, Chávez must have suspected that disputes and internal power struggles would erupt after his death. That is why he publicly appointed Maduro as his successor in December 2012. But Venezuela’s current bureaucratic government hasn’t learned how to grasp and ride on the coattails of Chávez’s legacy: Chavism – the movement built around a populist leader.

Maduro has done all he can, despite the ongoing tensions in his country. It was only in December that Chávez’s heir appeared to emerge politically stronger following municipal elections that gave his United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) overwhelming victories across the country. But the social unrest and violent protests over the past few weeks can be blamed in part on his predecessor, who died leaving a country crippled by mixed up economic policies.

At the same time, Maduro has had to deal with internal rivals who lead their own bands of supporters. “Within Chavism, there are different populist movements, each with leaders who have grown stronger by forming alliances with other factions,” Capriles explains.

Feeling the pressure, Maduro has sought the support of the movement’s extreme leftwing faction as well as the Cuban government, which has been advising him since even before Chávez’s death.

“If Maduro is doing things differently than Chávez, it is because he has to – not because he wants to; he has no other option. By seeking the support from these factions, he has to pay the piper in favor of the Cuban government and the extreme leftists,” she adds.

“Whether or not they are Chávez supporters, people are more open in accepting the fact that we are in a period of transition moving toward a model that is much in line with the Cuban regime. Maduro cannot afford the same luxury that Chávez had – which was to waver from one position to another, without implementing any concrete strategies, but still coming up smelling like roses,” Capriles explains.

Capriles deceived a sector of the opposition by not calling the people out onto the streets"

What has emerged during the post-Chávez era is a period of détente between Maduro and his closest rival, Diosdado Cabello, the powerful National Assembly speaker. But cracks within the PSUV have begun to show with the emergence of the radical faction Un Grano de Maíz (A grain of corn), and with the public criticism against the government’s militarizing of western Táchira state – the birthplace of the current protests – by Governor José Vielma Mora, a government ally.

The Maduro administration’s current management of the economy has also been plagued by a confusing policy of orders and counter-orders, which reflect the difference in opinions of those in power and are causing stagnation.

With Chávez gone, the opposition has also emerged around two separate poles. Miranda state governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost the race to Maduro last April by 1.59 percent of the vote, is seen as a moderate, while Leopoldo López and María Corina Machacho have embarked on a firm campaign of exerting pressure on the government by calling people out on the streets to protest.

Chávez’s death did help the opposition to organize and coalesce, according to political consultant Edgard Gutiérrez. “If Chávez hadn’t gone, there wouldn’t have been a need for presidential elections in April 2013. After the race, in which Maduro won by a small margin, Henrique Capriles deceived a sector of the opposition by not calling the people out onto the streets to demand that the elections be declared void.”

At the same time, Gutiérrez also said that Maduro hadn’t met the expectations of his own supporters. “Maduro has not had a honeymoon with the electorate because he won by such a slight margin and because he has never been completely comfortable in governing,” the analyst said.

“Chávez, meanwhile, had the wind blowing in his favor. He enjoyed the biggest petroleum boom in the history of his country and he pushed to introduce an arbitrary model of distributing wealth, which created the concept of the welfare state. And when this boom ended, Chávez resorted to piling up foreign debt so that he could continue this illusion of a bonanza, which he was able to keep up for the rest of his life. This is now over. Chávez was a symbol of political stability and prosperity; Maduro isn’t.

“In polls, 70 percent of those interviewed say that they are pessimistic about the road the country is taking. This opinion goes beyond the divisions of who is and who is not a Chávez supporter,” he said.

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