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With the death of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela faces the possibility of political instability and even disruptions, although there are promising signs as well.
On the positive side is the general sense of a national direction supported by those who voted for Chávez and who represent a majority of the population.
During his fourteen years in office, Chávez went from vague rhetoric about thorough-going change to a host of social programs designed to bring those who were most neglected in the past into the system. In addition, during the latter half of Chávez's rule, an economic model emerged in which the state competes with the private sector in many areas.
But on the negative side, organizational shortcomings due to the excessive reliance on one person and the political and social polarization that intensified after Chávez's election in 1998 leave Venezuela vulnerable and with a general sense of uncertainty about what will come next.
Weak organization is conducive to instability. The organizational liability stems in part from Chávez's failure to encourage the emergence of any kind of collective leadership or even a second-in-command until his first bout with cancer in 2011. No one in the leadership of the Chavista movement, or in the opposition for that matter, has political capital at all comparable to that possessed by Chávez.
That capital stemmed from his display of courage, such as in 1992 when he spearheaded a military coup of middle-level officers against all odds. It was also the product of a general perception that Chávez acted out of personal conviction, as, for instance, in 2001 when he criticized U.S. bombing of Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds, resulting in immediate economic retaliation and threats from the Bush administration.
Another organizational shortcoming is the close tie-in between the state and the Chavista United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which lacks a critical capacity. Indeed, the key figures in the PSUV are government ministers, governors and mayors. The PSUV's one redeeming characteristic, however, is the holding of internal primaries to select candidates and in some cases positions in the party. Although party bosses often use resources on behalf of their choices, still the rank and file, empowered by Chávez's insistence on "self-criticism" and rejection of bureaucratic behavior, always had the possibility of upsetting the party machine candidate, as sometimes occurred. Now with municipal elections coming up in July, the PSUV is scheduled to hold primaries to choose candidates for mayor and city council.
Then there is the political polarization, which is exacerbated by the rhetoric employed on both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, the inflammatory language used by Chávez against his adversaries was one of his distinguishing features. On the other hand, virtually all opposition leaders insisted that the end game of Chávez's political strategy was the establishment of an authoritarian state.
Other factors contribute to the mutual distrust that characterizes Chavista-anti-Chavista relations. A fairly large number of relatively privileged middle-class Venezuelans express overt hatred for Chavista leaders on the Internet and in informal gatherings, an attitude unmatched in intensity among Chávez's followers. The mistrust is fed by private national and international media reporting that focuses on all the negative aspects and criticisms of Chávez's rule. The state media, for its part, hardly reports on the opposition in gentle terms.
The opposition's candidate against Chávez in the October presidential elections, who will probably run against Vice-President Nicolás Maduro in the upcoming constitutionally mandated presidential election, has adopted a relatively moderate style toward the Chávez government. Shortly after the announcement of Chávez's death on March 5, Capriles delivered an emotional speech in which he insisted that Chávez had been an "adversary" but never an "enemy" and added, "It is time to bring about a national dialogue among all sectors." Hard-liners of the opposition have criticized Capriles' tone.
For sure, the threat of a reenactment of the intransigent actions of the opposition between 2001 and 2005 hangs over Venezuela. During those years the opposition attempted to overthrow the government on several occasions and went on to promote urban violence, and it subsequently refused to accept electoral results and even boycotted a congressional election. Capriles argues that the real opposition to Chávez began in 2006 when it changed its tactics and accepted adverse electoral results. However, Capriles' Justice First party and Capriles himself were key actors during the opposition's radical period of 2001 to 2005.
Nevertheless, there are positive sides of the current situation that will enhance the possibility of a peaceful transition to post-Chávez Venezuela. In the first place, a common denominator exists among Venezuelan voters: Few want to return to the Venezuela of the 1990s prior to Chávez's advent to power. During that period inflation reached triple digits and neoliberal policies facilitated the transfer of major sectors of the nation's economy to multinational corporations. By overwhelmingly rejecting pre-1998 policies and government, Venezuelans implicitly or explicitly recognize Chávez's contribution in burying the old political system.
In the second place, support for Chávez's programs and policies bind the Chavista movement together. The government's most successful efforts were in the social realm. The poor have acquired a sense of empowerment, not because of empty rhetoric as many in the opposition and the media claim, but due to concrete programs that promote participation. For instance, makeshift educational programs -- which in spite of their rudimentary nature confer high-school and college diplomas on underprivileged students -- have to be considered a positive step, not the least because of their truly massive scale.
At this point, Maduro has a good chance of winning the upcoming presidential elections. The widespread respect for Chávez and mourning over his death will probably get translated into votes for Maduro, whom the deceased leader appointed as his successor in the last public statement of his life on December 8.
Maduro and the other Chávista leaders will face thorny issues, which could divide the movement. For instance, the Chavistas in embracing the goal of socialism run up against the reality of an economy that is 70 percent privately owned. Does the government cooperate with private companies even while it vows to eventually take them over? The question has no easy answer and has produced internal strains even while it was never openly debated.
But the real challenge for the Chavistas in power at this point is running the country without major traumas. Up until now, in spite of government inefficiency, insecurity on the streets, and inflation between 20 and 30 percent, graver problems such as runaway inflation and permanent shortages of goods were avoided. Furthermore, minimum wages kept up with inflation. If the Chavista leadership can continue to avoid major crises and the opposition eschews the disruptive strategy it followed in the earlier years of Chávez's rule, the resultant political environment would enable the movement to advance along the trial-and-error path to change. That model, and not Chávez's legendary fiery rhetoric, is the deceased leader's most important legacy.
Steve Ellner has been teaching economic history in Venezuela's Universidad de Oriente since 1977. He is the coordinator of the May 2013 issue of Latin American Perspectives titled, "The Latin American Radical Left in Power: Challenges and Complexities in the Twenty-First Century."