Maduro’s devotion to Chavez: Unfinished business

FLICKING THROUGH TV channels, I sometimes stop on a programme called Long Island Medium. The storyline is: presenter and medium Theresa Caputo travels around the States meeting people whose loved ones died and left unfinished businesses in this world.

The families she meets need to hear a final word from their departed ones before they can resume their lives. So Theresa gives them a quick ‘reading’ and on they move.

The fact that many wouldn’t believe Theresa’s special power is for me beside the point: her crusade is not about hearing the dead, but empowering the living.

Long Island Medium springs to my mind when I read that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that former President Chavez’s face has been seen by bricklayers working in an underground tunnel in Caracas (you can read an El Pais article in Spanish here).

“Chavez is everywhere, we are all Chavez,” Maduro said. A week later he instituted a day dedicated to “loyalty and love” to Chavez (again on El Pais).

His main political asset has perhaps always been the loyalty to the late Comandante, and it seems that, in power, instead of trying to free himself from the shadow of Chavez to imprint his own style on the Venezuelan administration, Maduro has rather tried to couple his image to his mentor’s at whatever cost.

It first surprised me, a few months ago while I in was Caracas covering the Venezuelan presidential elections in April, that Maduro would re-tweet Chavez’s old messages posted on the now de-activated @chavezcandanga.

But it was election time, we were mere weeks past Chavez’s death and one must respect the true feelings that the two men would have nurtured towards each other after decades on the same political road.

In the context of a lightning-fast election, it seemed fair to excuse Maduro for borrowing the metaphor of a pajarito – a little bird – to reinforce the deep, almost supernatural connection between him and his mentor, as if Chavez had been whispering in Maduro’s ear what was good for the future of Venezuela.

Less tasteful were the discussions of whether or not to preserve Chavez for public visit like a modern Lenin – something no one knows he would even have approved of. Eventually time passed and it became scientifically impossible to carry out.

More than six months after Chavez’s death, Maduro’s public messages are as much about Chavez as about his own administration. Go on to his Twitter and you will see as many posts about the Comandante as about his subordinate. Maduro has even said that sometimes he sleeps in the military barrack that hold Chavez’s mortal remains in Caracas – it helps him reflect, he explained.

Moving beyond the caricature, from a political point of view, out of that comes the impression of an unfinished mini-transition that prevents a leader from standing on his own feet in Venezuela. Here I emphasise the “mini” because it is not a change of regime as would be academically understood; not as dramatic as the democratic openings of Latin America in the 1980s.

But the process is equally hard to control and certainly tricky. Maduro needs to address a country in troubling economic shape, with shortages affecting an overall 20% of items in Venezuelan supermarkets – and up to 80% of food items, including meats and harinapan, the corn flour used to make the staple arepas, a bread-like tortilla fundamental in Venezuelan diet.

Inflation is running at 49% a year. Excessive and inefficient state control over the food chain – the government says it is fighting the “economic war” against supermarket owner and the industrial elite –, the unavailability of dollars for importers and an unsustainable exchange rate (about 1/9 of the rates practiced in the black market) are part of the puzzle.

It is a challenging outlook and Maduro lacks the political support that Chavez had. He faces an opposition that gained ground in the past presidential election by cleverly incorporating some of the agenda that appeals to poorer Venezuelans, whilst distancing itself from the ultra-radical right wing that supported the 2002 coup d’Etat against Chavez.

Some suggest that even more dangerous to Maduro’s leadership is the threat that comes from more radical forces inside his own political party.

So it is understandable that in the run-up to local elections (on the 8th December Venezuelans will go to the pools to pick mayors and local councillors) Maduro would try to preserve as much of his power base as possible, using the image of Chavez to the maximum if need be. But he is swapping long term stability for an immediate electoral benefit.

In the end, the dead and living must part; there is no running away from that. It is an emotional transition, and in the case of a country like Venezuela, every bit as political as well.

Photo: Wall paint in Caracas – ‘Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro’ (Image: Wilfredor / Wiki Commons).

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