When trying to rationalise Hugo Chavez and his impact on Venezuelan politics, it is often said that the leader he resembled the most was Argentina's Juan Domingo Perón. Upon the death of the standard bearer of Latin American populism, peronismo took hold of political life in Argentina, on the back of the hugely popular Evita, who was exalted to demigod status in popular culture. More than fifty years later, that country is still dealing with the nefarious consequences of an irresponsible political establishment crafted by Perón. But as much as Chavez has been compared to Perón, chavismo's Evita died on 5th of March. So what will happen?
Chavismo seemed, until recently, to be a unipersonal enterprise, a political movement based solely on the whimsical designs of a caudillo, who spent a lifetime conspiring against the establishment and, once in power, ensured that no Evita could cast a shadow. Surrounded by incompetent and hapless yesmen, Chavez's continuity was guaranteed by a unique combination of charisma, a deep and personal connection to the impoverished masses, a laissez faire stance towards hugely corrupt collaborators and, above all, an endless supply of money which he used unrestrictedly and without oversight. Nicolas Maduro, who only has the latter, has demonstrated, should he win*, that contrary to conventional wisdom, there is life in chavismo after Chavez. It was not a house of cards.
Maduro's win in Sunday's presidential election will provide fresh evidence that Venezuela is a basket case. Lacking in charisma, political nous and oratory skills, but elected on empathy for the late caudillo and his ways, Maduro has perhaps the thing that matters the most in current Venezuelan politics: unfettered access to State resources. While Henrique Capriles Radonsky, the soon to be twice-defeated opposition candidate, has had to run his campaign on a shoestring and could not accept funds from the shrinking and debilitated private sector, Maduro has the unrestrained backing of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), or to put it in numbers, access to a kitty that gets -give or take- $250 million every single day. With that, charisma and popularity can be dispensed.
Capriles decided this time to launch a confrontational campaign. As much as his message appears to have resonated and energised his supporters, fact is no amount of heated rhetoric could undo chavismo's pile of cash, whose victory will signal that a clear majority much rather had a spend drift government than one that would bring an end to irresponsible populism. It is the affirmation that Hugo Chavez's manner of governing, i.e. populism, continues to be the choice of the majority. Between intangible promises from Capriles and hard cold cash from Chavez, or whoever his successors are, Venezuelans have little to think about. That's a reality that is not going to go away.
In 1845, a prescient Argentinean called Domingo Sarmiento wrote a book depicting the struggle between civilisation and barbarism (Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie). The history of his country, as much as ours, has been a mise-en-scene of the conflict between enlightened but ever so unsuccessful notions of nation building and identity and caudillo regimes, under whose rule development takes one step forward and ten back. Will Venezuela become the next Argentina? Will a more radical military Junta kick chavismo -as represented by Maduro- out? Early to say. It would be safe to predict however, that as long as chavismo controls the State and its resources, it can field any candidate in the certainty that barbarism's continuity won't be affected. That's a daunting prospect indeed.
*Jesse Chacon runs a polling company called GIS XXI. In last October's presidential elections he predicted Chavez would win by 55.1%. The caudillo got 54.8%. His prediction was closer than that of all other pollsters from Venezuela. Chacon is now predicting that Maduro is going to win with 55.3%, and calculates abstention to be between 26-22%. Chacon has an edge over all other pollsters in Venezuela: he is a former minister and old trusted man of Hugo Chavez, and keeps, to this day, very close connections with top chavistas.