Venezuela’s acting president, Nicolas Maduro, has revealed a clear strategy to win election next month to replace his late mentor, Hugo Chavez: cast himself as much as possible as the second coming of the populist leader who died last week, tap into the wellspring of grief among the country’s poor, demonize the opposition as enemies of those same people and promise to pursue the identical, badly managed socialist agenda that has left the oil-rich country’s economy in tatters.
“I am not Chavez, but I am his son. The people, we are Chavez,” Mr. Maduro declared on Monday after filing the papers to make his candidacy official as the designated heir to Mr. Chavez’s coalition of moderate and hard-line leftists, the military, union leaders and some business people. Although Mr. Maduro, a former transit union leader who learned his organizing skills in Cuba, lacks Mr. Chavez’s charisma or oratorical skills, his approach is likely to work.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to the cancer-stricken Mr. Chavez last October by 11 percentage points, is the better choice. But the larger-than-life ghost hovering over this election seems an all but impossible hurdle to overcome.
After defeating a top Chavez lieutenant to become governor of one of the country’s largest states in 2008, Mr. Capriles pursued policies to rebuild schools, improve health care and tackle hunger. This pragmatic centrist advocates a Brazilian style of moderate left-leaning reform, which helped revitalize that country, alleviate poverty and attract foreign investors. He has opposed the Chavez government’s heavy-handed meddling in the economy, including the wave of nationalizations and expropriations that left the vital energy sector starved for capital, and has called for a crackdown on the rampant corruption that went unchecked during the Chavez years.
These are all reasonable policies badly needed by a country facing chronic shortages of staples, one of the world’s biggest fiscal deficits, 20-per-cent-plus inflation and a badly distorted exchange rate. If Mr. Maduro genuinely wants to preserve Mr. Chavez’s legacy by finally making good on his unfulfilled promises to create a more equitable society with a thriving economy that would benefit all Venezuelans, he needs to set aside the borrowed vitriol and let his natural pragmatism take over while pursuing policies to win back badly needed investment for the oil-and-gas sector and rebuild relations with the U.S., Venezuela’s most important paying customer.