WASHINGTON — Hugo Chávez regularly denounced his political opponents as “traitors,” “fascists,” “criminals,” “mafia” and “lackeys of the United States.” His handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has already picked up Chávez’s mantle, disparaging his rival in the upcoming special election with homophobic remarks and saying that he was of “doubtful manliness.”
When Chávez was alive, the target of those remarks, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, might have ignored them. In announcing his plans to challenge Maduro in the April 14 election, Capriles made it perfectly clear how he is approaching this contest: “Nicolas,” he said, speaking directly to Maduro, “I am not going to leave you an open road, friend. You will have to defeat me with votes. I am going to fight with these hands. I’ll fight for each vote.”
It was probably the most combative, unequivocal and forceful speech Capriles has ever given. The 40-year-old governor of the state of Miranda was effectively calling Chávez’s successor out: You are not Chávez, and this election will be different. At past political rallies, Capriles invoked Chávez’s name, but he did so in a way that wouldn’t alienate undecided voters or disgruntled Chavistas who were open to switching allegiances. At an event I attended in late 2009, he told the crowd, “I don’t care what political party you are from.” Then he recounted a story about a voter he had recently met who confessed that he loved both Capriles and Chávez. The governor responded, “That’s OK. Sometimes a man falls in love with two or three women or a woman falls in love with two or three men. It’s all right — it’s part of life.”
Now there’s no more talk of love. (After Maduro was sworn in as acting president, Capriles held a news conference and reminded him: “Nicolás, no one elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, boy.”) His aggressive posture may be a byproduct of the contest itself: The government has announced that the official campaign will begin on April 2 and must end on April 11. That means the opposition will only have 10 days for ads, major rallies, and events, even while the country’s government-controlled media runs around-the-clock coverage lionizing Chávez (and by extension, the man Chávez said should follow him). Maduro, in fact, has been campaigning for months. Capriles didn’t shy away from charging Maduro with downplaying Chávez’s deteriorating health for weeks so that he could prepare for his own presidential run. Venezuela’s political opposition has no more time for subtext. Capriles has calculated that he must make the case directly and aim it squarely at Chávez’s political heirs.
His calculation also reflects his long odds. As the Comandante’s chosen successor, Maduro has the only endorsement that counts. On Dec. 8, in what would be his final address to the nation, Chávez told Venezuelans to elect Maduro if he failed to return to Miraflores Palace. “I ask you that from the heart,” said Chávez. With the mixture of grief, sadness and nostalgia for the late leader at a fever pitch, Maduro’s election may be the equivalent of Chávez’s final edict. (In early polls, the acting president has opened up a more than 10-point lead on Capriles.) Maduro now also enjoys the full weight of the Venezuelan state apparatus, the government’s oil-rich slush funds, and an obedient media. (The owners of the last television station critical of Chávez’s government are under pressure to sell their stakes to a company connected to the government.) But Maduro isn’t taking any chance that people forget he was Chávez’s man. At his events, crowds are brought to a frenzy by loudspeakers blasting Chávez’s voice singing the national anthem. And then Maduro assures them: “I am not Chávez, but I am his son!”
Who is this former Caracas bus driver and union activist who’s likely to be Venezuela’s next president? It’s difficult to say. As a member of the National Assembly and then as foreign minister, Maduro may never have expressed an independent idea. Indeed, the reason he rose and remained close to Chávez for so long probably has something to do with the fact that there was so little daylight between himself and what Chávez (and Cuba’s Castro brothers) thought. Capriles wasted no time laying into Maduro’s reputation as little more than a “yes” man. “You are exploiting someone who is no longer here because you have nothing else to offer the country,” he said in his speech announcing his candidacy. But for now Maduro has no safer strategy than to cling tightly to the former president’s memory. He plans to ride Chávez’s funeral procession straight into the presidential palace.
Despite the long odds, the Venezuelan opposition can’t do better than Henrique Capriles. Although he lost to Chávez by 11 points in the October presidential election, he put together the opposition’s best showing of the Chávez years, winning roughly 6.7 million votes. In December, he was re-elected governor of the state of Miranda, perhaps the country’s most politically significant state. Of his race against Maduro, he jokes that he knows how to beat Chávez’s vice presidents: His last two elections for governor have been against former vice presidents. Even though Chávez once had him imprisoned for two years, much of the time spent in solitary confinement, he emerged from prison an even tougher campaigner, famous for keeping up an indefatigable pace. That may explain why he typically shows up wearing sweatpants or a running suit. As he told me after one rally, “Whoever gets tired loses.”
Still, most people agree this is Maduro’s race to lose. The tougher question is what will happen the day after Maduro takes office. How would President Maduro confront his true inheritance, which includes sky-high inflation, ballooning debt, crumbling infrastructure, one of the world’s worst murder rates, and food shortages brought on by the government’s own mismanagement? And these urgent priorities may still take a backseat to Maduro’s more immediate concerns over the fractious political forces he will be forced to lead. Will the armed services be loyal to a man with no military pedigree and close ties to Cuba? Will Chavismo’s grassroots organizations — an increasingly important part of Chávez’s revolution — throw their support behind Maduro? And will he be able to manage his relations with Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly and vice president of the ruling party, whose support within the military and reputation as the “super minister” makes him Maduro’s most potent rival? Indeed, for all the attention on the upcoming contest with Capriles, it may be this rivalry within Chavismo that matters most in the near term.
In other words, what will happen when Maduro stumbles? Chávez has left instructions over who should be elected, but he also left a political system that was so conditioned to do his bidding that it became dependent on his presence. Institutions, laws, procedures, and norms were trampled to satisfy the requirements of one man. When disputes rose, he was the final arbiter.
In China, the passage of Deng Xiaoping in 1997 was a similar moment. He was a larger-than-life figure whose role in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic gave him an authority that could not be replicated. But he did not merely instruct the party who should follow him. (In fact, he chose his next two successors.) He went further. He left a country that was more prosperous than it had been in anyone’s lifetime, and he introduced norms that made it clear that future Chinese leaders would rule for two terms and then leave office. Deng understood that moments of succession are moments of great risk for authoritarian governments, so he set out to minimize that risk.
Chávez gave Venezuela Nicols Maduro. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.”