Skip to main content
stephanie nolen

The ghost of Hugo Chavez looms heavy over Venezuela nearly a year after his death as protests rack the country.Jorge Silva/Reuters

Gazing up at a giant photo of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, shown grinning in a golden light, Maurimar Santeliz is overcome. She clutches her husband's hand. Tears well up behind her dark eyelashes and spill down her cheeks.

"It's just so hard to take in – that someone so vital could leave us," gasps Ms. Santeliz, a teacher who made a pilgrimage to the tomb earlier this month, a highlight of her honeymoon.

As protests have racked Venezuela, with three people killed in clashes last week and rival pro- and anti-government marches Tuesday, the ghost of the autocratic Mr. Chavez looms heavy over the country. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has inherited a cascade of problems, and this week is struggling to keep a grip on the country, hunting down opposition leaders and using Mr. Chavez's favourite tactic of blaming the United States for his domestic troubles. But increasingly, it would seem that invoking Mr. Chavez may not be enough to keep him in power.

Mr. Chavez's mortal remains are entombed in a Disney-esque castle on a hill in the Venezuelan capital, and a steady flow of his people come to pay their respects each day. It's nearly a year since he died, two months after being re-elected for a fourth term as president. But this country that he dramatically remade in his own image is still grappling with what happens without him.

Before his death Mr. Chavez had tapped Mr. Maduro, a loyal deputy, to succeed him, and last December Mr. Maduro led their United Socialist party to resounding wins in municipal elections nationwide, a validation of his presidency. Yet Mr. Maduro still invokes Mr. Chavez each time he speaks. He constantly pledges loyalty to the Chavista revolution – even as the costs of that revolution become more visible each day, with inflation above 50 per cent, a roaring black market trade, empty store shelves and a national oil company in deep distress.

Mr. Chavez – El Comandante, as his people called him – seemed somehow able to power through all of that, persuading not just his own people but also many outside the country who looked to Venezuela as a new socialist model, that he could somehow make it all work.

"But after Chavez died, something changed – because Maduro is not Chavez," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis, a public-opinion polling firm in Caracas.

Mr. Chavez was possessed of a preternatural ability to convince his people that he was not to blame, even as his economic policies started to crumble. His rhetoric about the dark legacy of imperialism, the injustice of the historic inequities in the country, about the need to divide oil revenues more fairly, found a willing audience. And from those not swayed by the speeches, Mr. Chavez bought loyalty with massive social spending programs, financed by oil revenues (Venezuela was the world's fourth largest producer until the economic crisis began to strangle the national petroleum company; its current production status is hard to establish). When the promised health, education and housing benefits didn't look as good as promised, he bought complicity, doling out nationalized land and businesses. And he successfully distanced himself from a sky-high violent crime wave.

For Mr. Maduro, all of this is much more difficult. A former bus driver turned union leader, he is gaffe-prone and without flair. He has nothing like the international stature that Mr. Chavez carved out, as the blustering embodiment of a new leftist ethos and sharp critic of the United States. And so the holes in his domestic situation are much harder to mask.

"Most presidents in a situation like this could blame their predecessor, but Maduro is trapped – his predecessor is God," said Jorge Roig, who heads the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, in an interview last month.

Mr. Maduro has demonstrated a certain facility with buying popularity. When it seemed his party was in danger of losing the December municipal elections, with his own popularity down to 39 per cent, he ordered prices slashed and a price cap on white goods and electronics, effectively cutting the cost of big-screen TVs and washing machines by more than half. His popularity rating immediately rose by 13 per cent, said Mr. Leon, and his party won the election comfortably.

And he has a stable of scapegoats – Mr. Roig, the private-sector lobbyist, is a prominent one, whom the president accuses of waging an "economic war" to bring down the people's government, manipulating the markets to create false shortages. He uses Mr. Chavez's propaganda machine to make sure his people are getting the right messages: All broadcast media are now in the hands of the government, and the newspapers are being bought out one by one by shell companies associated with powerful government figures.

Those messages convince many Venezuelans. "The shortages are made worse here to make the government look bad," said Adriana Brito. She is an analyst at the Ministry of Environment, one of hundreds of thousands of new public service jobs created by the Chavez government. "Or they're caused by people who are against the regime, hoarding."

The propaganda campaign continues to persuade a substantial part of the population, Mr. Maduro has nevertheless been obliged to engage with the opposition that Mr. Chavez spurned – most recently, he has met with opposition leaders to discuss a response to violent crime, after the gory murder of a former Miss Venezuela and her British ex-husband in early January made the issue a national rallying point

For now, Mr. Leon said, even Chavismo-without-Chavez offers Venezuelans more than what a disorganized, rigidly right-wing opposition does.

Jose Marquez, for example, lives in a high-crime Caracas neighbourhood, sharing a cramped high-rise flat with his wife, children and grandchildren – seven people in all. He has a small electric and plumbing supply store, but its shelves are half bare because the goods he sells aren't being imported. Sales are way down, but his bills balloon each week. "If anything, we should be protesting in the streets," he said with a rueful grin.

Yet Venezuelans have not turned their back on the Chavez era. "There are things that anchor you: You get a house, a pension, your sick kid gets healed, it buys your loyalty," Mr. Marquez said. "And the opposition promises you nothing, except the fear you might lose what you've achieved."

Interact with The Globe