Following the recent death of their beloved president Hugo Chavez, what does the future hold for Venezuela? Will his socialist revolution continue, and do his people even want it to?
Although Venezuela is probably not somewhere you hear about all too often, the South American state has suddenly found itself forced into the spotlight as its people nervously await April 14th and its upcoming presidential election.
Despite it not being somewhere regularly reported on in the global press, on 5th March it was announced that President Hugo Chavez had finally died after a prolonged battle with cancer. The reaction came instantaneously, with public services coming to a complete standstill and the flocking of thousands of his supporters to the capital’s main square. Cries of ‘Chavez lives!’ and ‘We are all Chavez’ could be heard echoing around the streets of Caracaras as the country began seven days of official mourning.
After fourteen controversial years in power, it is perhaps only after his passing that many are learning of Chavez’ radical leadership in Venezuela. For better or for worse, it is safe to say that as a nation the Venezuelans now have a revolutionary sized hole to fill in their government. Renowned for his commitment to overcoming poverty and achieving social equality, but equally notorious for his anti US rhetoric and unpredictable outbursts – most famously calling George Bush a donkey during his UN address in 2006.
But now the question countless journalists and politicians are trying to find an answer to is, what’s next for Venezuela, will Chavez’ revolution live on and what will the consequences be for the people – not just of his country, but also of Latin America and the Caribbean?
We can only start by looking to his successor and the fragile political, economic and social state Chavez has left behind.
In October 2011, amongst raging speculation surrounding their leader’s health, the Venezuelans learnt that Nicolas Maduro had been chosen by the president as his successor should his health deteriorate completely. A former bus driver, and foreign minister since 2006, Mr. Maduro has been a close personal friend and colleague of the commander since the early stages of his political career. Many assume he will simply continue the work of his predecessor; which will prove no easy task, given the current delicate political situation and Chavez’ overwhelming reputation.
However political analysts are pretty confident that he will win the election in just over a week’s time, as the ghost of Chavez will undoubtedly be to his advantage –as many are likely to want to keep his party in simply out of respect. What is more despite his completely outrageous style, the late president managed to get re-elected to office for a fourth term in October of last year even though he was not well enough to attend his own inauguration. Therefore it is pretty unlikely that there will be a radical shift in support to the opposition – Henrique Capriles Radonski. This has already been reflected in the pre-election opinion polls which show a 14% lead for Mr Maduro.
With regards to Venezuela, the situation is clearly fragile and there appears to be both pros and cons for a continuation of Chavez’ policies. For example in 2012 the economy grew by 5% – a significant increase for a Latin American state. Yet at the same time as a country it suffers from chronic inflation and during his absence, while ruling from his hospital bed, Chavez saw unemployment rise from 5.9% in 2012 to 9.4% in the first quarter of this year.
Desperately devoted to a rise in social mobility, income and employment for the poor it seems that Chavez may have neglected other important issues, opting for ‘quick fixes’ instead of a much needed change and development in infrastructure. It has been noted that although his revolutionary and entirely admirable loyalty to the poorest of the population has meant a more even distribution of wealth in recent years, the public service sector has been pushed to its maximum capacity and the middle classes have debatably been put to one side.
Further afield, Chavez’ death also remains a contentious issue. Neighbouring Latin American countries including Peru, Bolivia and Argentina are just as anxious to see the outcome of the impending election. The president’s determination to achieve South American unity and to create a clear stand against ‘US imperialism’ means that several of his fellow leftist neighbours are keen to see his legacy upheld. However this very much depends on Venezuela’s oil supply. In the hope of creating unity, Chavez was prone to exporting oil at below market prices to countries he believed shared his revolutionary dream. For example, Cuba’s economy is highly dependent on the generous and highly reduced oil exports that came from Chavez’ close friendship with its former leader Fidel Castro.
With the fifth largest economy in Latin America, but also one of the highest crime and drug trafficking rates Venezuela’s future is far from clear. With neighbouring states like Brazil opting for a more centre-left government Chavez radically socialist revolution may not be able to continue with the momentum he would have hoped for. Similarly, with more and more South American states opening up relations with the US – will the death of their strongly anti American leader mean a similar shift in relations? And will those still in poverty continue to get the support they so desperately need with their people’s hero gone? As we await the fairly predictable outcome of the election, it is what happens beyond that which will really determine all of the above. However even if Hugo Chavez’ death only means an increased awareness of the chronic issues of poverty and corruption in South and Central America – at least that is one good thing to come out of what will clearly be another rocky few years to say the least.
The Venezuelan presidential election will be held on Sunday April 14th.