If He Holds on to Victory, Maduro Will Have an Extremely Hard Job

Venezuela's president faces not only a credibility challenge but massive economic problems that got their start in 1918.
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Venezuela's acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro sings during a campaign rally in Caracas on April 5, 2013. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela -- During the 10-day presidential campaign to determine who will fill out the rest of late president Hugo Chávez's six-year term, his anointed successor Nicolás Maduro threatened that the "curse of Maracapana" would fall on those Venezuelan voters who failed to support Maduro. (The name of the curse comes from a battle in which Spanish conquistadors defeated indigenous Caribbean tribes in the late 1560s.)

But the curse is now on Maduro. Despite a flowery and defiant victory speech late Sunday night after Venezuela's National Election Commission declared him the winner with just 50.66 percent of the vote to 49.17 percent for his aggressive challenger Henrique Capriles, Maduro's tenure in office, whether it lasts six days or six years, will be haunted with the doubt of half the nation's voters.

Maduro is a bland apparatchik whose legitimacy, so long as he remains president, will forever be challenged by his narrow victory.

In the short term, he faces an immediate crisis over the audit of election results that could further delegitimize his victory. Capriles defiantly refused to accept Sunday's election results in an early morning address to the nation. Wielding a thick stack of alleged election day violations, Capriles demanded a recount of 100 percent of the votes. While he stopped short of declaring victory himself, he ominously noted that his campaign had a different count of the results. Venezuela's army made clear last night that it was siding with Maduro for now, but that could change if the audit doesn't line up with the election commission's declarations.

Maduro was always going to face an economic crisis in the long run. But now, just five weeks after Chávez's death, Maduro faces a governability crisis as well. If his election is upheld and he serves until the end of his term in 2019, Venezuela will have marched through 20 years of chavismo.

Maduro takes office with an economy under siege -- the country has become increasingly reliant on imports; PDVSA, its state-run oil company actually produces less oil today than it did when Chávez took office; both international finance markets and Chinese lenders seem unwilling to fund a growing public debt; and the country is plagued with growing inflation that was already in double digits before the government officially devalued its currency in February and a informally devalued it even more in March.

It's far from certain that Maduro is up to the task of salvaging it all from a major economic crisis or recession. That half the nation believes Capriles won certainly won't help matters. It will make Maduro's position even weaker within the inner guard of the chavistas who run Venezuela's government, and Maduro's weak victory essentially makes chavismo a lame-duck movement more than ever.

But though Venezuela seems in dire need of at least some basic changes in economic policy, Venezuela's problems run far deeper in its society than even the most surgical reforms could fix. When the smoke clears, the deeper curse Maduro faces will come from neither Maracapana nor Capriles, but the curse that began in 1918 with Venezuela's oil exporting prowess -- the resources curse.

At first glance, Venezuela's history makes it seem like any other South American country. Independence won in the 1810s. Check. Civil war between "conservative" and "liberal" oligarchs throughout the 19th century. Check. Military-backed caudillos in the early 20th century. Check. Gradual advance of democracy in the late 20th century. Check. But though Venezuela shares many of the difficulties that its neighbors have faced, it assumed an additional macroeconomic burden as a petro-state with complications that plague Venezuelan governance to the present day.

Although Chávez came to power proclaiming a new, 'Bolivarian,' socialist fifth republic, he in many ways simply replicated what came before -- a relationship between the government and the governed whereby Venezuela's leaders trade a slice of the country's oil wealth in exchange for the political support it needs to win and retain power. That's why the fiercest battles over chavismo came not in 1998 when Chávez was first elected, but in 2002, when Chávez took direct control over PDVSA. That year saw Chávez briefly fall from power for 47 hours during an aborted coup and, later, a quixotic general strike among PDVSA employees that caused a minor recession. Chávez responded by replacing most of PDVSA's employees with loyalists and, increasingly, has used the oil company as a direct source to disburse funds for social programs, bypassing the formal government budgeting process.

Before 1958, the system was based on the caudillismo of military leaders like Marcos Pérez Jiménez. For the next 40 years, the system was based on a two-party oligarchy, split between the nominally center-left Democratic Action and the nominally center-right Copei.

Chavismo marked a rupture from this system in two ways. First, he diverted a larger share of Venezuela's oil wealth to the poor than ever before -- although the deployment of those funds was never incredibly efficient, nor was it without corruption. Secondly, he flattened the system through his own personality cult. PDVSA, the state oil company, has a stronger brand in Venezuela than the PSUV, the governing United Socialist Party. It was Chávez personally who doled out the gifts.

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It's the second part that will make Maduro's task especially difficult. Chávez would have been a hard act for anyone to follow, but Maduro is a bland apparatchik in contrast whose legitimacy, so long as he remains president, will forever be challenged by his narrow victory . He ran a largely defensive campaign, wrapping himself in Chávez's legacy. Provided that his victory is upheld, it's hardly a mandate forchavismo, let alone madurismo, but it's not at all clear whether chavismo would ever actually work without Chávez, the personal embodiment of the latest iteration of Venezuela's petro-state clientelism.

It's not at all clear whether chavismo would ever actually work without Chávez.

Maduro's weakness means it's more likely than not that Venezuela is headed for tough times ahead, even beyond the economic turmoil. Maduro spent negligible amounts of time advocating anything more than the broadest slogans, but the opposition refrained from calling from any radical departure from Venezuela's fundamental system, offering essentially a more workable chavismo that retains social welfare programs, but with less crime and a better business climate.

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Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and editor of the comparative-politics blog Suffragio.org.

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