During his first two days as Venezuela’s acting president, Nicolas Maduro didn’t lose a chance to swear his loyalty to Hugo Chavez, whether it was hosting a Chinese delegation or visiting his mentor’s coffin for the seventh time.
As the grief-stricken nation heads to a snap presidential election April 14, there’s no more effective campaign strategy for Maduro. After years of operating in the shadow of Chavez, the former bus driver is now tasked with steering a socialist revolution credited with improving the lives of Venezuelans at the third fastest pace in the world.
Chavez’s legacy and a still fragmented opposition should allow Maduro to coast to victory, a poll by Caracas-based Datanalisis shows. The bigger challenge is down the road, when economic woes left unresolved by Chavez, including 23 percent inflation and an overvalued currency, become tougher to manage.
“Maduro is in a more enviable position as a candidate riding a wave of sympathy than as a president of a country whose day of reckoning will probably soon arrive,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “There are limits to the compassion effect.”
Maduro, 50, projected an image of continuity after Chavez’s two-year battle with cancer ended March 5.
Son of Chavez
Shortly after being fitted with the presidential sash, Chavez’s handpicked heir vowed to remain “loyal beyond death” to the man he called the supreme leader of the revolution. Outside the legislature, crowds shouted “Chavez, I swear, I’ll vote for Maduro” and promised to deliver the 10 million votes that Chavez fell 1.8 million short of in his October defeat of Henrique Capriles Radonski, who is running again.
Calling himself the son of Chavez, Maduro today vowed to continue with his mentor’s social programs by improving hospitals and building homes for the poor.
“I ask our redeeming father of this Bolivarian land, Comandante Hugo Chavez, to give me strength, to give me wisdom so I can complete in full the order he gave,” he said at a rally after registering with the National Election Council to run for president. “He told me and our people that if something happened to his life on this earth we should take up his flag.”
Still, some Maduro supporters have doubts.
Jose Belandria, a 66-year-old census worker from Caracas, said Maduro lacks his mentor’s charisma and will face an uphill battle relieving food shortages and price increases that have worsened in tandem with Chavez’s health.
“Chavez kept us fed, and that can’t change,” he said while taking a break from a more than four hour wait yesterday to file past the former president’s glass-topped coffin. “He’ll have to deal with the business elite that have been hiding food from the people.”
Venezuela moved up seven spots to 73 out of 187 countries in the United Nation’s index of human development from 2006 to 2011. That progress trails only Cuba and Hong Kong in the index, which is based on life expectancy, health and education levels.
Chavez named Maduro his preferred successor before traveling to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery, and since then top officials and the armed forces have rallied around him.
Earth and Heaven
Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis, said that “earth and heaven will collide” during the short campaign. While Maduro will pursue a risk-free strategy of keeping alive the memory of Chavez, Capriles will try to knock his rival off message by focusing on voters’ real-life concerns about rising crime and inflation.
“Capriles avoided entering the ring with Chavez, but that’s the exact opposite of what he needs to do now,” said Leon in a phone interview. “Chavez was an idol, but Maduro is made of flesh and blood.”
Capriles has already stepped up his attacks, denouncing as a “fraud” a Supreme Court ruling allowing Maduro to campaign while serving as acting president.
“They’re campaigning with the president’s corpse,” the Miranda state governor said last night while announcing his candidacy, adding that Maduro has been lying for months about the true state of Chavez’s health. “Nicolas, are you putting to work those acting classes taken in Cuba? Are those tears real?”
Maduro will have the advantage of running as a virtual incumbent, with state television registering every move as it did when he paid a 2 a.m. visit yesterday to Chavez’s coffin. It was his seventh visit in five days to the military academy where Chavez is lying in state until his corpse is embalmed.
Speaking before the cameras again on March 9, he told a Chinese delegation led by Zhang Ping, head of the country’s top economic planning agency, that “the best tribute” he can pay to Chavez would be to deepen Venezuela’s strategic alliance with the world’s No. 2 economy.
He’ll also be buoyed by support in 20 of 23 states where pro-government candidates triumphed in December gubernatorial elections.
“It would take a miracle for the opposition to overcome such a completely adverse situation,” Leonardo Palacios, a Caracas lawyer who served as an opposition lawmaker alongside Maduro, said in a phone interview.
Maduro enjoyed a 46.4 percent to 34.3 percent advantage over Capriles, according to a Datanalisis survey taken Jan. 31 to Feb. 20. The margin of error was 2.4 percentage points.
It’s looking increasingly probable the transition of power will be peaceful and that Maduro will win with a “comfortable” margin, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts Jane Brauer, Flavio de Andrade and Francisco Rodriguez wrote in a report e-mailed today, citing opinion polls.
So far, Maduro has done his best to mimic Chavez. He lashed out against the U.S. “empire” in his inaugural speech, vowed to maintain heavy state control of the economy and in recent weeks has even begun wearing the same track suits in the colors of the Venezuelan flag that Chavez preferred.
The baseball-loving Maduro became active in radical politics while still in high school, eventually following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a union organizer, according to Vladimir Villegas, who has known him since the 1970s. At the time, he was a member of the now defunct Socialist League.
Maduro threw his support behind Chavez after a failed military coup in 1992, and was eventually jailed for his work to free the conspirators alongside his longtime partner, Attorney General Cilia Flores.
When Chavez was elected in 1998, Maduro won a seat in Congress and later become president of the National Assembly. He was made foreign minister in 2006, frequently traveling to Cuba while building Chavez’s anti-American alliance with countries including Iran and Nicaragua. Like Chavez, Maduro is known for keeping a brutal work pace, frequently holding meetings after midnight, said Villegas, who served as his deputy minister.
Villegas, whose brother is Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, said Maduro can alternate between being conciliatory and unforgiving with those who don’t share his views.
“The big question is which Maduro we’re going to see after the election,” said Villegas, who broke with Chavez in 2007 to protest a constitutional referendum that would’ve abolished term limits. “The economic situation demands dialogue.”
Among the challenges are the fastest inflation and the slowest growth this year among major Latin American economies, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg. Growth will slow to 1.7 percent this year from 5.6 percent in 2012, while inflation will quicken to 26 percent, Bloomberg’s survey shows.
While the decision to devalue the bolivar by 32 percent in February will help close a budget gap that tripled as a result of pre-election spending by Chavez last year, at 6.3 per dollar it still trades well above the 26 per dollar black market rate.
“Maduro isn’t Chavez, and at some point, we don’t know when, that will click with his followers,” said Leon. “When it does, any moderation in his policies to address the economic imbalances will inevitable be viewed by some as treason.”