In Venezuela, divisions over Chávez extend from parliament to the dinner table

 Polarization in Venezuela got worse under Hugo Chávez, with the rifts going far beyond politics to split cities, neighborhoods, and families. 

Rodrigo Abd/AP
People lining up to see the body of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez cheer outside the military academy where he is lying in state in Caracas, Venezuela on Saturday, March 9. Chávez died on March 5 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.

Mourning Hugo Chávez supporters lined streets outside the military academy for a fourth straight day today, but few were grieving just a few miles away.  

In the leafy, upscale Altamira neighborhood, residents shopped, sipped coffee at sidewalk cafes, and strolled in city parks. 

“If you want to talk to a Chávista, you won’t find one here,” says Carlos Leon, a businessman. Interim President Nicolas Maduro, who was sworn in last night, “is not my president.” 

Meanwhile, miles to the west, the red wave of supporters, a constant since Chávez died Tuesday, again waited in line for hours to bid farewell to their beloved leader. Chants spontaneously erupted: “I am Chávez!” and “the fight continues!”  

The sharp contrast between the two scenes underscores an important, if perhaps obvious, fact: Chávez left behind a deeply divided country. His socialist policies earned supporters and enemies. He both raised people out of poverty  and chased Venezuelans into self-imposed exile. In his 14 years in power, he proved to be both divisive and wildly popular – repeatedly winning elections by wide margins. 

“The polarization in Venezuela was there before, but it only got worse under Chávez,” says Carlos Romero, a political analyst at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. “Instead of striving for a consensus, he reinforced a rigid political alignment.”  

Politically, Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela appears to still have the advantage. Maduro, a former bus driver who rose through politics to become Chávez’s handpicked successor, had a 46.4 to 34.3 advantage over rival Henrique Capriles in a February survey by Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis. 

According to the Constitution, the election to replace Chávez should be held within 30 days of his death. Venezuelans were awaiting today an announcement on the vote, including the date, from the elections commission. 

Let the acrimony begin

The campaign mudslinging has already begun. Mr. Capriles, in a press conference held just hours after Chávez’s state funeral ended Friday, called Maduro’s swearing-in as interim president “completely spurious. No one elected Nicolas president. They did not say, ‘President Nicolas.’ … The people did not vote for you, boy.” 

Such political divisions are not unique to Venezuela. But the rifts go far beyond politics here, splitting cities, neighborhoods, and families. 

Vladimir Villegas was Venezuela’s former ambassador to Mexico under Chávez before leaving the socialist party. His brother, Ernest Villegas, is minister of communications and information. 

“There are areas of the city where I can’t go, where I can’t get out of my car anymore. There are areas where my brother can’t go. If he did, they’d insult him,” Villegas says. “When I left the party, I lost friends. And now I’ve made new friends. It’s very difficult to separate politics from your personal life in Venezuela.” 

A disagreement over Chávez’s policies, which favored the poor over the middle and upper classes, are at the heart of such splits. 

Chávez angered the middle class and business owners by expropriating buildings and farmland, at times seemingly on a whim. Inflation continued (although at levels lower than those Venezuela saw before Chávez took office) and shortages of basic food items became more common. His decisions to close TV and radio stations that opposed him and jail dissidents further disenfranchised some.

“He took things, the nation’s riches, and gave them to those people that you see in the streets,” says Ernesto Paredes, a taxi driver. “Franklin Brito was waiting in heaven for Chávez to die so that he could push him into hell,” he added, referring to an activist farmer who died in 2010 after repeated hunger strikes to protest the expropriation of his farmland. 

Chávez also took over Venezuela’s oil production – the country has the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum – and used it to fund Bolivarian Missions. Those social justice and anti-poverty projects, named for Chávez’s hero, the South American liberator Simón Bolivar, won throngs of supporters. 

“He broke the system that was here before,” says Ana Ramos as she waited in line to see Chávez’s body. “People that oppose him are angry because they lost control. But the revolution will continue.”

Andrew Rosati contributed from Caracas.  

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