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What will Venezuelans do post-Chavez?

Hugo Chavez, the comandante and self-proclaimed leader of the new Bolivarian revolution, died on the 5th of March, 2013, aged 58. Soon after his state funeral, the vice president of his United Socialist Party (PSUV), Nicolas Maduro, was sworn in as the acting president and will serve the country until new elections take place 30 days later, according to the constitution. What will now happen now in Venezuela and is anything going to change?

It is a fact that Chavez will be missed by a significant majority of Venezuelans who marched in his honour weeping when he was declared dead last week. These are the people who felt that Chavez reigned in their interest and who indeed benefited from his well-known social welfare programmes which were implemented largely in the healthcare and education sectors.

Chavez won the presidential elections of 1998 and has ruled Venezuela for the last fourteen years. During this time, gross education enrolment increased from 67.3% in 2000 to 88.7% in 2008. The poverty headcount ratio, which counts the number of people living below the national poverty line, went down from 62.1% in 2003 to 31.9% in 2011. And total unemployment, which was 16.8% of the labour force in 2003, had reduced to 7.6% in 2009. So, it would be untrue to say that Chavez had won the Venezuelans’ votes purely for his charisma and their blind love for him.

Henrique Capriles, the head of the major opposition party, Primera Justicia, is gathering all of his forces to prepare for the upcoming elections. In the last election, in October 2012, approximately nine million votes went for Chavez and six million to Capriles and the polls suggest that this time around, it is most likely that Maduro of PSUV will win. And yet, the big question is whether Chavismo is sustainable without Chavez?

Although the government programmes for the poor and the nationalisation of the oil industry seem to have gone in favour of the Chavista government, it goes without saying that there are concrete reasons why Chavez was a controversial leader. For example, despite the fact that the nationalised oil production rose revenue from $14bn to $60bn a year, Venezuela went into recession between 2001 and 2004 and later from 2008 to 2011. State-owned steel mills, electric utilities and oil plants have also been below capacity and eighty per cent of goods sold are imported.

Perhaps, what is even more concerning, is the type of authoritarian regime that Chavez practised. Certainly, Venezuela has not been a completely shut-off country, but journalists and TV channels which voiced against Chavez’s government were repeatedly threatened and boycotted. Chavez also seized control of the Supreme Court by adding twelve seats to the original twenty and filled them with his supporters, in such a way that any decisions taken by his government could bypass the court without contention. As a result, he repressed most signs of political dissent and made a conscientious effort to concentrate power.

Chavez in his speeches often categorised ‘the rich’, as those who came from middle-income households and above, and encouraged them to emigrate. This form of political attitude has resulted in the deeply divided country that Venezuela is today and I think it is a shame. Venezuelans are fighting amongst each other and, after such an extended reign, it will take time for the people to consolidate. But once again, there are concrete reasons why Chavez was loved so much by so many and some good came out of his government. For this reason, I would ask, is it possible to have a modern socialist government without it being repressive?

Ayako Iba

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