The ailing Chavez, who died Tuesday of a heart attack following a long battle with cancer, had handpicked Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor. But the constitution, largely rewritten by Chavez himself shortly after he assumed power in 1999, says the speaker of the National Assembly should be the interim president.
However, Maduro, 50, was quickly named as acting president and as the socialist party’s candidate in the special election to replace Chavez. The constitution says the election must be called within 30 days of the post’s vacancy, but the Chavistas show no sign of honoring that deadline.
Also in violation of the constitution, which says the military must stay out of politics, the defense minister — Adm. Diego Molero — pledged that the military would support Maduro in an election.
Maduro will likely face Henrique Capriles, the popular 40-year-old governor of Venezuela’s most populous state, Miranda. Capriles lost to Chavez in October’s presidential election by 11 points, not a bad showing considering that Chavez controlled the broadcast media and a vast patronage network. His power base was Venezuela’s numerous urban poor. He showered them with social programs and food subsidies that were often not well or honestly run, but convinced them that he genuinely cared about their welfare.
Maduro quickly picked up on one of his patron’s favorites devices: When in doubt, blame the United States. Chavez regularly predicted an imminent invasion by the U.S. Maduro hinted that in some way the U.S. was responsible for Chavez’s death, a charge amplified by the Cuban government, which Chavez subsidized with cut-rate oil. When it was clear that Chavez was near death, Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches, blatantly grandstanding for Chavez’s supporters.
Whoever wins the election will inherit a country with severe economic problems, in spite of its vast oil reserves. Inflation is close to 33 percent. Because of Chavez-imposed price controls and nationalization of stores, there are shortages of many basic necessities and a thriving black market where the dollar trades at four times the official rate. Crime is rampant.
It’s another reminder that socialism doesn’t work, and has never worked.
Maduro has taken to telling crowds, “I am Chavez.” For the sake of the Venezuelan people, let’s hope he’s not.