CARACAS – With the death of Hugo Chávez, Chávismo has lost its supremacy in Venezuela. It does not matter that so-called Chávistas still control Venezuela’s parliament, 17 of 23 provincial governments, and all key state institutions, including the judiciary. Nor does it matter that Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has already assumed the presidency. All of the signs point to the decline of Chávismo and to the end of Venezuela’s role as Latin America’s populist core.
Between last October’s presidential election and the one held last month, Chávismo lost almost 700,000 votes to Henrique Capriles’ Democratic Unity Roundtable – a shift that many, including Chávistas, attribute to “Maduro not being Chávez.” This was the first presidential election in Venezuela that resulted in an almost even split among voters (and the outcome itself remains hotly contested). If Venezuela continues along this path, Chávismo could not only lose its majority; it could collapse altogether.
Maduro’s poor performance reflects his squandering of Chávez’s electoral capital. More important, it has deepened doubt that he will be able to perform two crucial functions of Chávismo, one related to Cuba and the other a more nationalist, less “anti-capitalist” purpose connected to unnamed yet powerful military figures.
Chávez’s connections with Cuba were an important factor in his choice of Maduro – a Marxist tutored by Fidel and Raúl Castro – as his heir. More than a decade ago, Cuba saw in Chávez a way to drive Latin American populism in three main ways: establish North American imperialism and the local “oligarchies” as common enemies; lock in the support of the uneducated and deprived underclass; and erode the bases of viable opposition.