Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Chávez’s passing after a two-year battle with cancer yesterday afternoon in a nationally televised broadcast. Immediately a large number of Venezuelans, including retiree Carmen Gonzalez, flocked to Caracas’s iconic Plaza Bolívar.
"I'm so upset; it's incredibly painful," Ms. Gonzalez says, holding back tears. "Venezuela suffered a huge loss … President Chávez can't be replaced."
Replacing him, however, is a must: The Constitution stipulates that elections be called within 30 days, with the president of the National Assembly taking over as interim leader. But in a sign that Chávez’s word is law, even after his death, his designated successor as presidential candidate for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Mr. Maduro, has stepped into the interim position instead, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua announced last night.
There are no shortage of variables playing into the transition – from respect for the Constitution to peace in the streets to the possibility of food shortages. It is expected that the individual who steps into the role of president will be faced with continuing much of Chávez’s popular social programming, while dealing with an unstable economy that depends on international imports and petrodollars.
But analysts agree that after Chávez, no politician can succeed without a platform that touches on social inclusion.
"[Chávez has] given real hope to members of the lower classes," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “That's not something an opposition candidate will want to – or even be able to – walk away from.”
Reaching the people
Condemned by his critics for causing rampant inflation, crime, and corruption, Chávez's special brand of populist-fueled socialism struck a resonant chord with Venezuelans fed up with the decades of exclusive “politics as usual” that preceded his time in office. His electoral base has been the poor and working class, who felt for decades they were brushed aside by the two parties that dominated the political spectrum.
Coining the term "socialism for the 21st century," the former Army paratrooper shored up unprecedented support during his tenure by investing the country's vast oil wealth in subsidies and popular assistance programs providing anything from free medical care to housing and groceries.
Almost 60 percent of Venezuelans favor his policies, according to Luis Vicente Leon, president of the polling firm, Datanalisis, though he also calls the number “incredibly volatile."
But “the situation today in Venezuela is very difficult," says Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University, referring to skyrocketing public debt accrued during the Chávez years and a faltering oil industry.
Despite having the world's largest proven oil reserves, South America's largest oil exporter is now importing oil products from the US to meet its domestic demand. Production has dwindled by an estimated 25 percent since Chávez took office. The US Energy Information Agency reported last year that 89,000 barrels were exported daily to Venezuela.
And that presents an added challenge to his successor – whether it’s Maduro from the PSUV, or the opposition’s expected candidate, Henrique Capriles.
“An election without Chávez could increase the opposition's prospects should shortages of food, medicines, and other basic goods continue intensifying in Venezuela,” IHS Global Insight Latin America analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos said via email.
The latest polling data from Hinterlaces, collected prior to the announcement of Chávez’s death, shows that if Maduro and Mr. Capriles face off in a presidential election, Maduro is projected to win 50 percent of respondents support; Capriles 36 percent; with 14 percent of respondents undecided. And though Maduro had Chávez’s backing, that doesn’t make him Chávez.
"The popularity of Chávez is not solely based on his policies but rather on Chávez himself," Mr. Leon says.
"He's a phenomenon," says Eduardo Brown, a retired public administrator, while paying his respects to the president at the Plaza Bolívar last night. "It's his charisma, the rational behind his actions. He's the only president that has truly reached the people."