The Ghost of Chavez Haunts Venezuela's Election

As the campaign heats up, candidates try to emulate the late leader as much as possible.
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A supporter of late Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds a poster of him outside the Museum of the Revolution in Caracas on March 16, 2013. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Being dead hasn't stopped Hugo Chavez from dominating the ongoing elections to replace him in Venezuela. The presidential candidates are doing little to focus on the many and pressing issues in the oil-rich country, opting instead to campaign primarily on the legacy of a leader who, since his death last month, holds more political sway than ever. Indeed, so hungry is Venezuela for more of Hugo Chavez, that Nicholas Maduro, the most likely candidate to replace him, was inspired to declare at one point in the race, "I'm not Chavez, but I'm his son."

Venezuela is now searching for a new leader. Even though the president had been absent since December 10, the confirmation of his loss has unsettled a country grown accustomed to its controversial poster-boy. "We are all Chavez," chanted the mourners at his funeral. Some had waited for two days under the scorching Caracas sun to spend the briefest of moments shuffling past their "beloved commander."

"Look at the disgusting face of the fascist that he is," screamed Maduro after formally registering his candidacy. "You are a poisoned dart of hatred and provocation."

Death has elevated Chavez to the status of a martyr, and the extent of the adulation means that for any politician to offer criticism is to commit political suicide. So in a country where politics is centered around personality rather than policy, the campaigning has become a caricature.

With his open-casket show extended by popular demand, the former leader looms large in the public consciousness. Rolling news coverage of the crowds visiting his remains serves as the backdrop to his anointed successor Nicholas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles slinging personal insults at each other in an election campaign devoid of real political substance.

"Look at the disgusting face of the fascist that he is," screamed Maduro after formally registering his candidacy. "You are a poisoned dart of hatred and provocation," he said before launching into a recurring theme, the calling of his opponent's sexuality into question. "I do have a wife, you know?" Maduro gloated, "I do actually like women!"

Nor has the opposition's response to the dirty politics been exemplary. Capriles does little more in his public appearances than refute the slurs of the day, choosing to hit back at his aggressor in kind. "No one elected you, kid," he said after one particularly visceral bout of hatred from the socialist camp, "you're the problem, you're the voice of lies."

While the nightly mud-slinging makes for excellent entertainment, the bickering that offers Venezuelans plenty of gossip is also mutually beneficial to a pair of candidates who are rigorously avoiding talking about any real issues. Instead, they opt to talk about Hugo Chavez, the only character emerging from this nihilistic process with a reputation intact.

"Chavez is being kept in the public consciousness because he can be used for so many different political causes," said George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution. "He's an extremely powerful political symbol to have on your side."

"Maduro's goal is to make this election all about Chavez," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas. "The more he can talk about the heroic leader, the more he draws attention away from his own shortcomings. He's trying to turn himself into president on the back of the Chavez legacy."

It is a rare public appearance that Maduro makes without an image of Hugo Chavez close at hand. Anointed as successor two days before Chavez disappeared, his being the Chosen One is the former bus driver's primary credential for the presidency.

"When Chavez named Maduro, he was still hopeful of his return," Jones said. "Maduro, 100 percent loyal, was seen as the perfect house-sitter while Chavez was away. But Chavez never came back and now the socialists are left with a man whose authority won't come close to that which Chavez enjoyed."

Chavez's replacement finds himself in a tenuous position, backed by an inherited and fickle chavista support base, loyal not to him but to the wishes of their dead hero.

Moreover, his constitutional position as interim president is questionable, since according to the document it is the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a political powerhouse with a vast military support base, who should take over in the event of a president's inability to govern.

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Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance foreign correspondent based in Caracas, Venezuela.

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