The presidential election this Sunday in Venezuela is expected to give the country either a leader who tries to fill the shoes of the late Hugo Chavez or a leader with new shoes.
Nicolas Maduro was Chavez’s right hand man and hopes to carry on like his powerful friend. The centrist Henrique Capriles, with the opposition united behind him, would like to draw a line under the Chavez version of socialism.
Maduro did Chavez’s bidding. Capriles has experience governing. But Maduro is comfortably ahead in the opinion polls.
Chavez built a foundation of adoring voters; Maduro is following in his footsteps – but with no guarantee he can keep up the pace – either political or theatrical.
Analyst Oswaldo Ramirez said: “He has feet of clay. He doesn’t have the Chavez charisma. He doesn’t lead like Chavez. But don’t rule him out. He has the whole state apparatus, the entire government structure and all the Socialist Party behind him.”
Though 45 percent did not vote for Chavez last October, Henrique Capriles knows well enough not to knock the legend, but in his campaign he has trod on Maduro’s toes, calling him by his first name to hammer home it’s not ‘Hugo’.
Capriles said: ‘‘The campaign is Nicolas and me; leave President Chavez out of it.’‘
There is a stack of challenges waiting for Nicolas or Henrique. The economy is slack, the price of Venezuela’s number one earner, oil, stuck around 100 dollars a barrel. Inflation went over 20 percent last year – a national record. And the murder rate is a frightening eight times the world average. Chavez never got a grip on that record-breaker in all his 14 years in office.
Chavez did narrow income disparity and made better nutrition a national goal, though critics of his price ceilings for basic foods hope not to see more state intervention like that.
Whoever takes the reins after Sunday’s election, both candidates have said they would leave in place the social programmes the late larger-than-life leader introduced.
We asked a specialist in Latin America affairs for her views.
Mario Alfaro, euronews: Senior researcher at Madrid’s FRIDE International Relations Foundation Susanne Gratius joins us now. Is Maduro going to win this presidential election as all the voter surveys say, or will Venezuela give us a surprise?
Susanne Gratius: “There won’t be a surprise because, as you say, all the polls show the vote going to Nicolas Maduro. It’s possible he’ll get a lower percentage than President Chavez did last October, when he won with 55 percent of the votes.”
euronews: “Can Chavismo continue without his physical presence?”
Gratius: “I believe that we are seeing that it can go on, and will go on even if the country is divided into two or even three blocks, because a lot of Venezuelans do not support Chavismo’s projects or support the opposition, and that is where the struggle to win votes will concentrate.
“I believe Chavismo has momentum without Chavez because he has become a religious figure, and he named Nicolas Maduro as his presidential successor before leaving for Cuba. The absolute leader of the Chavist movement gave him legitimacy.”
euronews: “What are the main challenges for the next president?”
Gratius: “The main problem identified by the Venezuelans is their lack of safety, the high level of violence, which is even higher than in Mexico and some countries in Central America. I think there’ll have to be a more effective public security policy than we see now. The other problem is the economy. Inflation rates are high, there are shortages of some consumer products, and in some ways Venezuela has imported the Cuban economic model, in the sense that some products are heavily subsidised and the state has a strong hand in running the economy.”
euronews: “What is going to happen with Cuba?”
Gratius: “If bureaucracy and officialdom win, then I think this alliance will be maintained, even if Maduro has already said he is going to end the presence of Cuban military advisors now in Venezuela. But economic exchanges should continue. We don’t know what will happen if the opposition wins. I think they would reduce commercial exchanges.”
euronews: “To conclude, how do you think relations will be with the European Union after 14 April?”
Gratius: “Relations between Venezuela and the EU fluctuate, but Venezuela is not a very important country for the EU. Nevertheless, it is part of the Latin American community of nations, and in this sense there are close ties between Spain and Venezuela, obviously because of resources, oil, and also because Spanish companies are present in Venezuela. There are economic interests, and even though there have been some tensions in the past with Hugo Chavez relations flow quite well. From the EU’s side there hasn’t been any criticism of the drift towards authoritarianism during Hugo Chavez’s time. The relationship is different than it is between Venezuela and the United States.”