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.”