Can Hugo Chavez's high-stakes revolution survive his death?

Venezuela has begun seven days of mourning following the death of President Hugo Chavez, who loomed so large in his country's politics and recent history. While Chavez's life is being remembered, many are also pondering the country's future.

Hugo Chavez, a giant on the Latin American political stage, is a hard act to follow

Hugo Chavez supporters took to the streets in Caracas and other cities in Venezuela, March 5, chanting and with signs reading We are all Chavez. The message, which was also on huge billboards during the election last October, is meant to convey the message that Chavez's political movement is more than one man, and presumably can survive his death. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Venezuela has begun seven days of mourning following the death of President Hugo Chavez, who loomed so large in his country's politics and recent history. While Chavez's life is being remembered, many are also pondering the country’s future.

During the 14 years Chavez was president, both Venezuela and Latin America saw significant change politically and economically. But Venezuela has seemed to be in a state of uncertainty since shortly after last year's presidential election. After winning it handily, Chavez announced his cancer had returned.

While Chavez fought what would be his last fight, his vice president and handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been in charge. Maduro is likely to be the Chavez movement's candidate in an election the government has said will be called within 30 days.

The polls and the pundits predict a victory for Maduro, thanks to his predecessor’s popularity and what is likely something of a sympathy vote. In any case, there's little expectation that "Chavismo" will quickly disappear.

Chavez is "demonstrably one of the giant Latin American figures of this age," says long-time Latin America observer Larry Birns, who doesn’t think Maduro measures up to his predecessor in terms of charisma and popularity.

Where will 'Chavismo' go?

Francisco Toro's new book, Blogging the Revolution, was published March 1.

Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan writer who co-authored the recent book Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era, says the end of Chavez's style of one-man rule means there's going to be a big transformation in Venezuela.

A Chavez critic, the Montreal-based Toro says that an "elected autocracy" clearly "can't go on without that one person." But the writer also says that, "Insofar as it's an ideological system and a way of thinking about Venezuelan reality, that will go on."

Birns, a long-time critic of U.S. policy in Latin America and director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., acknowledges the challenge of succession in a system of strongman rule, what Latin Americans call a caudillo.

"Chavez tried to hold on as long as he could, for one principal reason: he didn't have confidence that anyone else could become the leader who would carry the revolution across the goal line," says Birns. "And that's really what he lived for."

Toro says there is a "mystical, almost religious component" to the Chavez revolution and contends that "Chavez's death could actually strengthen that."

For Toro, "The question is whether the people who come after Chavez can hitch their wagon to that figure... and use it to continue to rule the country."

Maduro vs. Capriles

A few weeks before Chavez died, Maduro seemed to be "almost campaigning," Gregory Wilpert, the author of several books on Venezuelan politics, said in a TV interview.

Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro addresses the nation to announce the death of President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, March 5. Maduro is the Chavez movement's likely candidate in the election to choose Chavez's successor. (Miraflores Presidential Press Office/Associated Press)

"He's on television all the time; he's basically keeping up a public appearance schedule that is on a par with Chavez's public appearances," Wilpert, in New York, told the Real News Network, adding that it had helped Maduro stay on top in public opinion polls.

In the upcoming election, Maduro is expected to face Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, who lost to Chavez in the October vote. A February poll by Hinterlaces put Maduro at 50 per cent support, compared to 36 per cent for Capriles.

In the interview, Wilpert added that Venezuelans are giving Maduro "credit for the relatively smooth continuity and functioning of the government."

Following two electoral defeats in six months, the opposition is weak and fractured, Venezuelan historian Margarita Lopez Maya told a Feb. 25 forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington. She advised the opposition to prepare for the medium term rather than the upcoming vote — even if they were to win an imminent election, there would still be serious internal conflict, since Chavez's movement controls all the other branches of government.

For Toro, "It's very difficult to imagine that the opposition could just take over the president's office and then have a normal kind of transition."

Toro and Birns expect the Chavez forces to remain united, at least in the short term, although that won't be as easy without Chavez there to settle their disagreements. 

Much depends on oil prices 

Toro and Birns also believe that the future of the revolution depends greatly on the price of oil.

BP's 2012 annual Statistical Review of World Energy estimates that Venezuela has 296.5 billion barrels of oil — more than Saudi Arabia. During the Chavez presidency, the price of oil increased tenfold, which enabled Venezuela to pursue what Toro describes as "an entirely spending-led kind of socialism."

Oil revenue funded the programs that helped make impressive reductions in poverty, but other problems, like crime, remain a major challenge for the post-Chavez government.

"If the price of oil plummets, the government is going to be in trouble," Birns says.

Left-leaning Latin America

Although Chavez was not the first left-leaning Latin American leader, he was the best known and most influential and important.

Chavez supporters take to the streets of Caracas, March 5. Chavez brought Venezuela great pride and 'made the region stand proud, according to Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

"What he has come to convey throughout the region is confederation, shared resources and common identity," Birns says. He adds that Chavez brought Venezuela great pride and "made the region stand proud."

After Chavez's death, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement saying that "the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government."

After hearing the U.S. government response to Chavez's death, Birns sees some hope for reconciliation. The U.S. is still Venezuela's biggest commercial partner.

American influence in Latin America has lessened, something Chavez helped along by helping build new regional organizations and supporting left-leaning governments.

"The U.S. was much more isolated in Latin America than was Hugo Chavez by the end of his life," Birns notes.

Chavez's regional leadership role was helped by his sharing of Venezuela's oil wealth, especially with Cuba and other poor Caribbean nations.

Cliff May, who heads the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CBC's Evan Solomon that the broad coalition of left-leaning countries that oppose U.S. policies will likely continue, but "the leadership of that movement is up for grabs to a large extent."