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Would Chavismo Continue Without Chávez?

By Peter Hakim, Diego Arria, Cynthia Arnson, Bret Rosen, David Smilde
Latin America Advisor, December 20, 2012

Originally published in the Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor.

Q: Earlier this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that his cancer had returned and urged supporters to back Vice President Nicolás Maduro in the event that he is forced to leave office. In regional elections on Sunday, Chávez allies trumped the opposition in 20 out of 23 gubernatorial races, though leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles was again elected governor of Miranda state. What are the likely outcomes if Chávez were to suddenly leave office? Is Capriles well-positioned to remain the top opposition leader? How would Maduro fare in a special election for the presidency against Henrique Capriles? What role did Chávez's health play in the regional elections, and how is it affecting the country's economic prospects? 

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "By winning 20 out of 23 races in last Sunday's gubernatorial elections, supporters of Hugo Chávez made it clear that 'Chavismo' will not necessarily end with his death or incapacitation. But by overshadowing everyone else in Venezuelan public life, Chávez has made it hard to predict what comes next in the country's politics. Whether Henrique Capriles or any other opposition figure can beat Chávez's designated successor, foreign minister and vice president Nicolás Maduro, remains uncertain. Last weekend's elections suggest that Maduro will have the advantage. Whomever leads Venezuela will face a catalogue of formidable challenges--an increasingly chaotic and inflationary economy, declining oil production, bitterly polarized politics and pervasive criminal violence. Resources will have to be found to sustain popular health and social welfare programs. Rebuilding democracy and the rule of law is not likely to be an immediate priority of any Chavista candidate-but it ought to be if Capriles becomes president. Chávez's death would not much affect the broad dynamics of regional affairs. It may be felt in some places, however. If Venezuela halts its generous support, Cuba could face a humanitarian crisis. Bolivia and Nicaragua would also be set back. Venezuela's program for the energy-poor Caribbean and Central America has mitigated high fuel prices. Still, Venezuela's aid initiatives may not be drastically cut, even by an opposition government. Chávez's anti-Americanism, no matter how galling, did not cause the decline in U.S. influence in the region. That resulted mostly from changes in Latin America--its stronger economies, more independent politics and greater assertiveness internationally--and from the United States' political and economic problems, along with the costly distraction of two wars. Chávez's death would not be enough to restore U.S. influence in Latin America."    

A: Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: "The Dec. 16 gubernatorial elections constituted a major setback for the opposition, one that was surprising in its magnitude and that does not bode well for national-level success in the near future. In political terms, the re-election of Henrique Capriles in Miranda state and of his former vice presidential candidate, Henry Falcón, in Lara constituted the only good news in an otherwise bleak scenario. Capriles' ability to hold onto Miranda, despite the enormous effort of the PSUV and former vice president Elías Jaua to defeat him (and thereby end his political career) suggests that he is the only viable candidate to confront Nicolás Maduro in a new national contest. But the constitutional requirement that new elections be held within 30 days of a president dying in office or becoming too incapacitated to govern poses enormous challenges. It is an extremely short period of time in which to organize another national campaign. More important, the passions generated by Chávez's death or resignation would mobilize his loyal and fervent base in support of his anointed successor. A new election will serve, as have so many in the past, as a referendum on Chávez's rule; but this time there will be the added element of a referendum on his legacy. Amid all the heightened emotions, it is hard to imagine anything but a resounding Maduro victory."

A: Diego Arria, a member of the Advisor board and director of the Columbus Group in New York: "Chávez's health is only known by the Cuban regime and its doctors. I believe that it is possible that Chávez himself does not even know his own situation well, as the Cuban regime may not want to further undermine his emotional state. Chávez's largesse with the Venezuelan treasury is fundamental for the Cuban economy. Even if he is forced to resign, legacy will remain for many years to come. Capriles chose to remain as governor and fortunately succeeded, but I believe it is at the cost of surrendering his potential role as a national leader. If there is an election, the field would be wide open for opposition candidates. The opposition would have to reinvent itself to gain credibility. Only a national movement, allied from across civil society and not just driven by the leaders of existing opposition parties, would succeed. Any candidate from the existing administration, be it Maduro or Cabello or anyone else, would essentially be a stand-in for Chávez, dead or alive. And that fact prevailed in the gubernatorial elections where the official candidates did not win--Chávez won for them. It is difficult to know the impact of Chávez's health on the electoral process, but it has been played extremely well by the regime with its Cuban advisors. The country is facing very serious problems that will not be addressed until the Chávez situation is resolved."

A: Bret Rosen, senior Latin America strategist at Standard Chartered: "The results of the gubernatorial elections were clearly favorable for the Chavistas, given that they won more governorships than expected. Should Chávez be unable to continue in office, the results provide an impetus to push for new elections sooner rather than later to take advantage of momentum. On a national level, the Chavistas' advantage over the opposition was again in double digits, following up on Chávez's 11 percent margin of victory over Henrique Capriles in the October presidential race. That said, it is also important to recognize that abstentions in the gubernatorial elections were quite high, so we should not automatically assume that Chavismo has a complete mandate. If Chávez leaves office and elections are called, we would expect Capriles to be the most competitive opposition candidate. He would almost certainly be opposed by Nicolás Maduro. Given that Capriles earned the governorship of one of Venezuela's most important states, and the defeat of some other key opposition leaders in other state elections, one would expect him to be the most well-positioned opposition leader. We would expect Maduro meanwhile to benefit from a wave of sympathy for the Chavismo movement generated by the president's health. This phenomenon might resemble what occurred in Argentina when the death of Néstor Kirchner provided President Cristina Kirchner with a boost in popularity. While Chávez is clearly the emotional leader of the PSUV party, we don't believe that Chavismo ends the moment that the president is no longer on the political scene. The PSUV has a substantial party infrastructure that Maduro would benefit from; it controls the country's key institutions and it has been highly successful in 'get out the vote' efforts in national elections. Finally, any fiscal or exchange rate adjustment appears likely delayed until after there is clarity on the president's health and potential timing for yet another presidential election."

A: David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia: "The results of the regional elections show that Hugo Chávez's charisma can carry over to others in his coalition. At least in the short-term, this makes it likely that if Chávez were to step aside, his named successor, Nicolás Maduro, would win new elections. However, keeping together a functioning coalition in the longer term would be a big challenge as 'Chavismo' includes a diverse coalition that ranges from extreme left movements to progressive liberals to military nationalists. Chávez kept it together through charismatic leadership and immense popularity among the electorate. It is not clear that anybody else could do that over the next six years, especially with looming economic and political challenges in 2013. More broadly, Venezuela as a nation is still strongly divided. The poor majority is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines to patiently wait for the benefits of modern citizenship, such as health, education and affordable housing. The Chávez coalition has prioritized their needs but it remains to be seen whether they can do so through sustainable economic growth and while fully respecting political and civil liberties. Many from Venezuela's affluent classes have learned that combatting poverty and inequality is the key to Venezuela's future. Many others, however, still think of the poor majority as undignified second-class citizens. It remains to be seen if the Venezuelan opposition can put together a political project that actually convinces an awakened and astute poor majority that they are working in their interests."