Being dead hasn’t stopped Hugo Chavez from dominating the ongoing elections to replace him in Venezuela.
The presidential candidates are doing little to focus on the many and pressing issues in the oil-rich country, opting instead to campaign primarily on the legacy of a leader who, since his death last month, holds more political sway than ever. Indeed, so hungry is Venezuela for more of Hugo Chavez, that Nicholas Maduro, the most likely candidate to replace him, was inspired to declare at one point in the race, “I’m not Chavez, but I’m his son.”
Venezuela is now searching for a new leader. Even though the president had been absent since December 10, the confirmation of his loss has unsettled a country grown accustomed to its controversial poster-boy. “We are all Chavez,” chanted the mourners at his funeral. Some had waited for two days under the scorching Caracas sun to spend the briefest of moments shuffling past their “beloved commander.”
Death has elevated Chavez to the status of a martyr, and the extent of the adulation means that for any politician to offer criticism is to commit political suicide. So in a country where politics is centered around personality rather than policy, the campaigning has become a caricature.
With his open-casket show extended by popular demand, the former leader looms large in the public consciousness. Rolling news coverage of the crowds visiting his remains serves as the backdrop to his anointed successor Nicholas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles slinging personal insults at each other in an election campaign devoid of real political substance.
While the nightly mud-slinging makes for excellent entertainment, the bickering that offers Venezuelans plenty of gossip is also mutually beneficial to a pair of candidates who are rigorously avoiding talking about any real issues. Instead, they opt to talk about Hugo Chavez, the only character emerging from this nihilistic process with a reputation intact.
“Chavez is being kept in the public consciousness because he can be used for so many different political causes,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. “He’s an extremely powerful political symbol to have on your side.”
“Maduro’s goal is to make this election all about Chavez,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “The more he can talk about the heroic leader, the more he draws attention away from his own shortcomings. He’s trying to turn himself into president on the back of the Chavez legacy.”
Chavez’s replacement finds himself in a tenuous position, backed by an inherited and fickle chavista support base, loyal not to him but to the wishes of their dead hero.
Moreover, his constitutional position as interim president is questionable, since according to the document it is the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a political powerhouse with a vast military support base, who should take over in the event of a president’s inability to govern.
“He’s not the perfection we’re looking for,” said Caracas native Eluterio Rodriguez, “in fact we know almost nothing about him, but he was chosen by Chavez and that’s enough for us.”
With Chavez gone, Venezuela’s problems are looming larger. The country’s has an inflation rate of 22 percent, an economy starved of dollars, a thriving black market, and crime rates at a record high. Last year saw nearly 22,000 murders, giving Venezuela more annual homicides than the United States and Europe combined.