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Chavez successor's challenges

Nicolas Maduro is expected to win the election. He has strong support, but it may fade fast.

March 07, 2013|Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon
  • Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro takes part in the procession accompanying the coffin of Hugo Chavez in Caracas. At left is Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro takes part in the procession… (Rodrigo Abd / Associated…)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Nicolas Maduro, a stocky former bus driver who never finished high school, takes power with a deep reserve of goodwill from supporters of Hugo Chavez -- but also severe problems that may soon exhaust it.

When Maduro, 50, faces voters as early as next month as the successor to Chavez, who died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, he will almost certainly win election in his own right. But the late comandante left behind a society mired in crime and economic problems that may soon sap support for his protege. Maduro has little of his mentor's charisma or political skill -- and it's not clear that he can even count on unity within Chavez's movement.

What seems certain is that Maduro has the "popular legitimacy" to win election riding the tide of pro-Chavez public sentiment, said Sujatha Fernandes, a sociology professor at City University of New York.

The Venezuelan Constitution calls for an election to be held within 30 days of the incumbent president's death or resignation, which makes it likely that the vote will take place in early April.

"Chavismo will be part of the Venezuelan and Latin American story for many decades, that of Chavez as a quasi-religious figure, the Jesus Christ of the poor," said Jose Manuel Puente, a professor at Advanced Management Studies Institute in Caracas, known by its Spanish initials IESA. "Maduro will benefit and capitalize on that."

But eventually Maduro will have to "prove his legitimacy to rule," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington office of the Americas Society. That task is made easier by Chavez having anointed him as his successor in December -- but perhaps complicated by a sense that he didn't earn the position through election.

Maduro, a tall and voluble native of Caracas, has little of the oratorical skill of Chavez, who was able to maintain supporters' rapt attention during his five-hour "Alo Presidente" television shows. As foreign minister, Maduro built a reputation as a conciliator and something of a mystic. A few years ago he trekked to India to visit Sai Baba, a guru who teaches meditation and tolerance.

Maduro possesses the street smarts and negotiating experience of a union leader, which he once was. And he has a high-powered partner in his wife, Cilia Flores, who led the legal team that freed Chavez from prison after his participation in a failed coup in 1992. Like her husband, she went on to lead the National Assembly, the legislative branch of Venezuela's government.

Doubts remain, however, that Maduro can fill Chavez's shoes.

"He has little independent political base and he has obvious potential rivals within the Chavista movement," said Farnsworth. Those competitors include National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who is allied with the armed forces.

Others include Chavez family members, "who surely don't want to remain outside of the inheritance of political capital that the president left," said Luis Salamanca, a professor at Central University of Venezuela. Chavez's older brother Adan, now governor of Barinas state, was the late president's ideological mentor and is mentioned by some as a potential candidate for higher office.

Maduro's strengths include popular social spending programs put in place by Chavez, said Miguel Tinker Salas, a history professor at Pomona College.

But Chavez's social largesse was fueled by Venezuela's rising oil revenue over the last decade. Prices now have leveled off, crude production has stalled and Venezuela's debt is rising, including a $38.5-billion marker to the Chinese. Meanwhile, Venezuela's industrial and farm base -- textiles, cattle, sugar and steel -- continues to shrink, making the country ever more dependent on imports.

To stanch the flow of imports, the government last month announced a 46.5% devaluation of the currency, the bolivar. That made imported goods more expensive. But the move will bite the poor hardest because they spend a greater part of their incomes on imported household goods. Also hurting the poor, analysts said, is inflation that could exceed 30% this year -- one of the three highest rates in the world.

"Despite having about the highest average oil price in history, the government faces huge challenges due to the mismanagement of the economy," said Francisco Monaldi, a visiting professor at Harvard University.

Mushrooming crime has made Venezuela one of the most violent nations on the planet. Although Chavez, through the force of his charisma and common touch, overcame the issue to win reelection in October, Venezuelans may cut Maduro less slack. The homicide rate is now five times what it was in 1999. More police officers were killed in greater Caracas in 2011 than in the U.S. as a whole.

Like Chavez, Maduro is a fervent admirer of Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, and thus likely to continue Venezuela's economic support of the communist regime, largesse that totals an estimated $6 billion annually and could try supporters' patience.

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