Can Chavismo survive without Chavez?

| Mar. 7, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Vice

Just hours after Hugo Chávez's death was announced by Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro – clad in white and fighting off tears – the depth of Venezuela’s passion for their late leader quickly became apparent. Outside Caracas’ military hospital, where Chávez spent his final two weeks, hundreds of supporters gathered. Many cried, lost without their Comandante. In the iconic Plaza Bolívar, named for Latin American independence hero and Chávez’s idol Simón Bolívar, more quietly flocked together to share their collective grief.

As the night wore on, that silent and sombre mood got a little more tipsy; shots were fired into the air, some photographers were beaten up (a benchmark for any good party) and a group of tents that had been set up in protest by the opposition were burned down, with the culprits reportedly screaming, “He’s dead now – are you happy?”

In the wealthier parts of town, every restaurant was closed and all the streets emptied out for fear that the violence would spill over from the main gathering of increasingly worked-up mourners. Here, a number of residents openly admitted to popping champagne and celebrating the socialist president’s death.

The hangover for both sides was interrupted by numerous 21-gun salutes at 8AM the next day.

That morning, tens of thousands lined the route between the military hospital where Chávez spent his final two weeks and the military academy where his body would lay in rest. Those gathered appeared surprisingly jovial; signs read, "Now more than ever, we are with Chávez," and the same songs that have played throughout election campaigns and at official rallies continued to blast out over the crowds.

“I am Chávez,” said Grisen Andrade, a hairdresser clad in a bright red Chávez T-shirt and a headband that repeated that phrase. “He’s a man of the people. He’s the one we love. He’s the heart of the poor,” she told me.

Nicolás Maduro is the country’s Vice President and Chávez’s chosen heir, nominated just before the president went in for his fourth cancer operation in December. According to the constitution, elections must be called within 30 days of the president’s inability to govern. Maduro will undoubtedly win, buoyed by Chávez’s Midas touch. Stood near Andrade was Manuel Guillermo, who told me, “I will support Maduro because it was Chávez’s last wish.”

The question is whether Maduro, a former bus driver with a robust moustache and a questionable tolerance for homosexuals, can keep Venezuela in one piece. Chávez always deflected blame for one of the highest murder rates in the world, soaring inflation and frequent shortages onto his ministers. And, as one of those ministers, Maduro will have to find another fall guy – he won't be able to obscure those problems behind charisma and personality, like Chávez so tactfully did.

A perfect example of that comes from a recent rally led by Maduro. Apathetic supporters milled around at the back of the small crowd, taking far more interest in each other's shoes and plans for dinner than whatever the Vice President was babbling on about. Put that in contrast with Chavez's friendly, captivating, all-encompassing oratory and you can see where the problems might begin for Maduro in keeping Chavismo alive without Hugo Chávez.

Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution – named, again, for Latin American independence hero Símon Bolívar – has, for better or worse, completely turned Venezuela around. The big man’s domestic policies, such as numerous nationalisations, brought his self-styled socialism directly to the people. For example, oil wealth is meant to have been channelled directly to the poor (although many criticise the government for siphoning some of it off).

Another trademark of Chávez's were his inflammatory remarks about America – descriptions for George Bush included, "the devil", "Mr Danger", "a donkey" and "an alcoholic, a drunk and a liar" – and cosying up to pariahs like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

But despite all those murderous friends and incendiary rhetoric, there was an underlying sense of fun that endeared him to supporters. "I think we're suffering from political impotence,” he once said. “We need political Viagra."

If anything, Chávez was the last of the world’s leaders to need a political aphrodisiac. He thrived on the polarisation he created, relying on it to bolster his base support. But a successor like Maduro – who lacks that impressive cult of personality that kept Chávez propped up – is going to have a much harder time keeping people onside.

This week, Chávez’s body will lay in state until Friday, when his funeral will take place. While there's obviously much hatred for the man in some (mostly American) circles – “Good riddance to this dictator,” spat US Rep Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs – his funeral is expected to rival that of Eva Perón in 1952, attended by some three million people.

Fellow member of Latin America’s left-wing alliance, Bolivian President Evo Morales, said this week that Chávez was “more alive now than ever”. It's now Maduro’s job to ensure that Chavismo, at the very least, continues to live.