Chavez cult no match for Venezuela's crisis

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CARACAS, Venezuela — A year after Hugo Chavez's death, dozens of mourners still trek daily to his mausoleum atop a hillside slum overlooking downtown Caracas.

There, in the century-old military barracks where Chavez commanded a failed 1992 coup, "El Comandante" rests in a marble tomb flanked by soldiers wearing the hussar-style uniform that independence hero Simon Bolivar favored.

"Every day, I pray to God to care for Chavez's soul," said Raimundo Villanueva, who traveled five hours by bus from the northeastern town of Anaco to pay his tearful respects. "He meant everything to me. He was my brother, my uncle, my friend, my comrade."

Such devotion has been a crucial-but-fading force for Chavez's handpicked successor, President Nicolas Maduro. Despite daily invocations of his mentor, and control of the powerful party apparatus he inherited, Maduro is increasingly on his own in a fight against a destabilizing wave of anti-government protests fueled by the less-heralded aspects of Chavez's legacy: rampant crime, 56 percent inflation and widespread shortages of staples such as toilet paper.

"Maduro has done everything within his power to use the Chavez cult against the economic crisis, but it's a lopsided battle," said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of a 2004 biography of Chavez. "Every day that goes by, he's less and less seen as Chavez's heir."

While the crisis besetting Venezuela has its origins in Chavez's state-centered management of the oil-rich economy, the late president still stands larger than life among traditional have-nots such as Villanueva, the owner of a fast-food stand who credits Chavez's socialism for being able to send his three children to college.

But even many government supporters say they see Maduro as an inferior version of Chavez, who was a master of theatrics with an infectious vision of Latin American solidarity against the U.S. "empire."

While Maduro still orders arrests and issues stern threats to "fascist" opponents on hours-long TV marathons, his political instincts often seem off-key.

"Chavez had an enormous appetite for power," said Tyszka. "He wanted eternity. But with Maduro you get the sense that all he wants is to politically survive the crisis."

To mark Chavez's passing, Maduro has decreed a 10-day commemoration — three days more than the weeklong official mourning period following Chavez's death at age 58 on March 5, 2013. A military parade and activities with leftist allies from around Latin America are planned, with tributes centered around the mausoleum where Maduro attends a cannon salute at 4:25 p.m. on the fifth of every month to mark the exact time of Chavez's death.

Without Chavez's charisma and army background, Maduro has dramatically expanded the military's role in government, appointing more than 300 uniformed or retired officials to political positions, including a quarter of Cabinet posts. He's also raised soldiers' salaries faster than inflation and created a military-run TV network.

Such moves have won him near-complete loyalty from the military, the traditional arbiter of political conflicts in Venezuela. But it may also explain why a crackdown on recent protests has been so heavy handed, earning the rebuke of the United Nations and human rights groups.

While Chavez also thrived on antagonizing his enemies and didn't hesitate to deploy security forces against opposition protests, he wasn't as beholden to the military machine he built and knew when to pull back, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of local pollster Datanalisis.

That's not to say Maduro is relying solely on brute force to stay in power. He can also draw from wide support among the poor in a deeply polarized nation.

In a vote framed as a referendum on Maduro's rule, his party's candidates prevailed in December mayoral elections. And even the candidate he defeated in the race to elect Chavez's successor, Henrique Capriles, acknowledges that Maduro might be strengthened in the short term by the recent protests, which have been centered in middle-class neighborhoods.

While discontent with the economy is widespread and growing, Maduro's blaming of an "economic war" waged by his opponents still resonates among many poor people who had it even worse in the pre-Chavez era, said Rebecca Hanson, a University of Georgia doctoral student who has lived in Caracas' poorer western half for much of the past three years.

"There's going to be a time limit on this for sure," said Hanson. "But for a lot of people, the radicalization of the opposition is whipping up support for Maduro."

In the end, these are the people who Maduro most needs to woo if he's to survive the current crisis. And doing so requires quickly addressing the country's economic needs. Maduro's honor of Chavez's corpse, while it can stir religious-like fervor, won't yield political dividends forever.

"No amount of bluff or political marketing can resolve the problems Maduro faces," said Leon.