‘Son of Chávez’

Hugo Chávez may be dead but chavismo is very much alive in the highly charged Venezuelan election campaign, due to come to a head on Sunday. As has been widely reported, the interim president and Mr Chávez’s anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and trade unionist, has been campaigning on the promise of preserving the late president’s legacy, to the extent of declaring himself the “son of Chávez.” It is not surprising that Mr Maduro should so attach himself to his predecessor, whose death has led to the transformation of the cult of Chávez into the mythification of the charismatic populist. From demagogue to demigod you might say.

Support for Mr Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is for the most part dependent on keeping the image of Mr Chávez alive in order to maintain the momentum of the “Bolivarian Revolution” on which he had embarked. In this respect, enthusiasm for Mr Chávez’s social reforms aimed at Venezuela’s large underclass is expected to trump anything opposition candidate Henrique Capriles can put forward to counter Mr Chávez’s “21st century socialism.” As such, Mr Maduro is going into the election with a healthy 10-point lead over his opponent – pretty much the same margin by which Mr Chávez triumphed last October.

Mr Capriles, however, maintains that Venezuela needs a new beginning after 14 years of Mr Chávez and he is advocating a socio-economic model akin to the Brazilian mix of free-market economics and strong social policies. He, moreover, dismisses the polls, pours scorn on Mr Maduro’s ability to lead the country and appears confident of victory.  “Of course I can win,” he told AFP news agency, “Maduro lacks charisma and leadership.”

Indeed, Mr Maduro’s leadership skills are virtually unknown and untried. He also clearly lacks his predecessor’s huge charisma and genuine revolutionary appeal as a former coup leader and military man. But Mr Maduro and the PSUV are generally expected to capitalise on the sympathy vote and the advantages of incumbency, even as they milk the image of Mr Chávez for all they are worth.

Thus, in highly emotional pitches to the Venezuelan voters, there has been no let-up in identification with Mr Chávez or his politics of confrontation. In the latter respect, this has not been confined to the opposition, depicted as a neo-colonialist bourgeoisie, as the spectre of the perennial bogeyman, the United States of America, has also been raised. Mr Maduro has been happy to break off informal diplomatic contacts aimed at rapprochement, going so far as to accuse former US officials of being behind a plot to kill him. There have been other bizarre elements to his campaign.

Mr Maduro has claimed that Mr Chávez has appeared to him in the form of a little bird and has invoked the centuries-old “curse of Macarapana” – a reference to a 16th century massacre of Indians by Spanish colonial forces – on those who do not vote for him. Nothing, it seems, is too far-fetched in this very emotional period, in the quest for popular support and votes.

One month after Mr Chávez’s death, Venezuela is still a deeply divided country and this election will, if anything, further polarise the nation. It would seem that the self-proclaimed “son of Chávez” is willing not only to foment polarisation but is also happy to perpetuate the eccentricities of his late mentor’s rule, as he seeks to be the next elected president of Venezuela. And with whisperings of divisions within the chavista power elite still around, he may, perversely, be gambling on increased and continued polarisation to impose internal cohesion on the movement he has inherited and wishes to lead in memory of its founder and his patron.