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Venezuela's Woes Will Outlive Chavez

Venezuela's long-rumored transition to the post–Hugo Chávez era started in earnest last weekend as the cancer-stricken president made his most explicit call yet to his supporters to prepare for his passing. In a late-night speech televised live, a somber Chávez very explicitly annointed his vice president, Nicolás Maduro, as his intended successor, suggesting that this second recurrence of his "pelvic" cancer may be fatal.

Chávez's chosen heir is something of a blank slate. Although he's held a string of high-profile jobs since 1999, including speaker of the National Assembly, foreign minister and, now, vice president, Maduro long ago figured out that the Prime Directive for an aspiring Chavista pol is never ever to be seen as out of step with the president. The president-in-waiting is Chavismo's consumate Yes Man.

The trouble with Yes Men, of course, is that you can never tell what they're really thinking. Maduro's resume provides only limited guidance: A Caracas bus driver turned radical union organizer for bus drivers, he's seen as a champion for the civilian side of the Civilian-Military divide, a split typically described as pitting more radical, leftist, pro-Cuban civilians against more conservative, corrupt, nationalistic military men in the upper echelons of bureaucratic Chavismo.

We're reduced here to painting with very broad brushes—a kind of tropical Kremlinology that tells its own story about just how authoritarian politics have become in the Chávez era. Essentially all the politicking that matters in Caracas these days happens behind closed doors, well away from the public sphere, leaving rumors about rifts between Chavista factions to roam wild in the Twittersphere. It's not an edifying spectacle.

The reality is that, like every pol who's managed to survive a decade and a half of splits and purges within the Chávez movement, Nicolás Maduro is a political minikin, part of the flotsam left behind after every Chávez supporter of substance and integrity either walked out or was thrown out.

For the moment, Chávez's explicit endorsement ends what some had feared would become a messy fight to succeed him. But how lasting will that peace prove to be, once the comandante is out of the picture? After all, the skills it takes to remain in an autocrat's favor over an extended period of time have little in common with the skills it takes to keep the governing coalition intact—to say nothing about running the country. Maduro is the acknowledged master of the former, certainly, but his aptitude for the latter is untested. What's clear is that Maduro lacks any source of legitimacy apart from the president's favor, and that inevitably raises questions about his electoral viability.

Should Chávez leave the presidency before 2017—a near certainty, in light of his speech on Saturday—the constitution calls for new elections to be held within 30 calendar days. Chávez has stressed that, should he be unable to continue in power, this constitutional mandate must be followed to the letter—a rare point of agreement with his opponents. The dynamics of an election on such a compressed timescale, with the campaign presumably competing for public attention with an extremely emotive funeral, are difficult to forecast.

Venezuela's long suffering liberal opposition looks on this spectacle with some hope and not a little trepidation. In elections barely two months ago, the opposition was thumped by more than 11 points as an ailing Chávez, barely able to campaign, nonetheless coasted to a third term. To some, Chávez's charisma carried the day. My analysis is less optimistic: That campaign showed the obscene structural advantages a cash-flush petrostate incumbent enjoys in an increasingly autocratic environment where opposition fundraising is badly hobbled by harassment and intimidation against its donors, and all checks on the abuse of official prerogatives for campaign advantage have been hollowed out. While Maduro has none of Chávez's charisma or storied emotional bond with the poor, he would undoubtedly inherit that advantage.

Then there's the question of whom the opposition might run against Maduro. The previous standard bearer, Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles, ran an impressive campaign that garnered 6.5 million votes against Chávez in October—an opposition record. But the young moderate was still buried by a landslide of over 8 million Chavista votes, and there would be plenty of rumbling from other aspirants should he stand again.

As it happens, Capriles must clear one other hurdle before he can even think about a renewed presidential run: This Sunday, he's up for re-election in Miranda against Chávez's previous vice president, the charismatically challenged Elias Jaua. Chavistas are already talking up the prospects of a "double play" against Capriles, as it's hard to see him standing for national office if he can't hold on to his own state. In fact, even a close win on home turf might hobble Capriles's national viability.

Plenty of other opposition figures would love a go at Maduro, which raises the stakes for Sunday's regional elections considerably. Should Capriles underperform in Miranda, Sunday's vote could end up serving as a de facto opposition primary, with the opposition figure who performs best becoming the presumptive nominee against Maduro.

Yet for all the political posturing, much will depend on factors neither side can control. Much of Chávez's enduring popularity has been bought with a massive, deficit-financed consumption boom. To give just one example, the government has imported literally millions of Chinese-made appliances to sell below-cost to its supporters. When Mitt Romney complains about the president buying votes with gifts, the hyperbole is clear; in Venezuela, it's just a statement of fact.

All that feel-good spending comes at a price. If nothing is done, some forecasters estimate Venezuela's 2013 budget deficit will reach an insane 19.5 percent of GDP (consider that Greece's deficit topped out at 15.4 percent of GDP in 2009). It's a policy that can't be defended on Keynesian pump-priming grounds: The economy has been growing strongly for eight straight quarters, with final private consumption at an all-time high as imports spiked a head-spinning 17 percent in 2012. Whatever the spending binge may be doing, sustaining a fragile recovery ain't it.

That this demand-side boom can't last is clear as day, but for Chávez, who came to power on the back of an impassioned critique of the "neoliberal" austerity policies, adjustment is a four-letter word. He's repeatedly put off sure-to-be-unpopular measures such as devaluing the currency and ending the ruinous practice of handing out gasoline basically for free. But as adjustment morphs from ideological bogeyman to arithmetic imperative, the dithering will only make the eventual reckoning worse. And here the oncological intangibles once again come into play. Because, macroeconomically speaking, a fresh election in February is an entirely different proposition from one in, say, December 2013. 

If transition comes earlier, the "winner" of fresh elections will find himself in the unenviable position of having to reverse treasured Chavista spending programs soon after taking power, and Chávez will forever be remembered as the hero who kept the evil neoliberals at bay right up until the day he died. But if Chávez manages to hang on for another year or so, he may just live to preside over the collapse of his own governing model.

Which is one very good reason to cry out, "¡Viva Chávez!"

Francisco Toro blogs about the Chávez Era at