CARACAS -- On his way to catch up with thousands of President Hugo Chávez’s faithful in the state funeral procession, Victor Romero, a 51-year-old messenger, admits that he’s very concerned about Venezuela’s future without El Comandante.
“We had a great leader, a general, but now there’s another (Vice President Nicolás Maduro)…we don’t know how he’ll handle things,” Romero said.
While hopeful that the nation remains on course with Chávez’s 21st Century Socialist Revolution, Romero admits that even with the fallen leader’s chosen successor now in charge, “everything’s up in air.”
The firebrand leader, who died Tuesday, leaves an extremely polarized nation in his wake, a situation that dogged his 14-year tenure of this oil-rich nation that has fallen on hard economic times.
“His electoral base has been identification with the poor and working class,” said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University. Koeneke said that the reach of the government’s social programs, especially the emblematic social agencies called Bolivarian Missions, gave the president the appeal of a holy man.
“I knew when I first saw him in the [’92] coup that he come to save the Venezuelan people,” recalls Francis Clisanchez, a 34-year old beautician from Catia, one of western Caracas’ poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.
In many ways, Chávez has stayed true to Clisanchez’s early prediction, as his programs have made their way into most aspects of her everyday-life. The Missions provide Clisanchez with everything from eyeglasses to diapers for her three daughters. It even provided her with a high school diploma.
“Chávez has moved the meter in Venezuela toward a greater sensitivity toward social issues, to delivering benefits from the state to the majority of the population,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in New York.
Far from her days fighting to make ends meet as a street vendor, Clisanchez now works on community education programs that Chávez started.
“Chávez has turned the poor into the middle class,” she says. “The middle class are now wealthy.”
However, plagued by one of the world’s highest inflation rate and sporadic shortages of basic foodstuffs, many in an authentically well-off eastern Caracas are quick to challenge Clisanchez’s claim.
A former business owner in upscale Altamira, 49-year-old Pedro Aristeguieta slams the former president’s policies.
“The only thing government has done with the oil wealth is increase handouts through Missions…and instead of investing in the private sector, it has undercut business,” Aristeguieta said.
Executives have long grumbled about Chavez’s anti-business bent, as currency controls and expropriations of over 1,000 businesses and farm properties have sent many investors fleeing a country that is mineral rich with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
After Chávez authorized a currency control system that grossly overvalued the bolívar, as well as imposing onerous labor laws, Aristeguieta was stuck between bankruptcy or being expropriated. He ended up closing down his family’s textile factory.
“It was incredibly painful,” he said, as the closure left 3,000 workers out of a job. Losing the family business, he says, “is something that can never be compensated for.”
However, like many others in this opposition stronghold, Aristeguieta quickly dismisses hopes that a new leader will alter the overall picture.
“The only improvements that will come are economic ones,” he says.
With approval ratings at the time of his death at around 60 percent, even Chávez’s critics admit radical departures from his program are unlikely to take place anytime soon.
“I have no doubt that Chávez is a milestone in Venezuelan politics,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the polling firm, Datanalisis. “In the post Chávez era, it’s almost impossible for the political sector — both the government and the opposition — to be that much different from him.”