What's Behind Venezuela's Toilet-Paper Shortage?

Maduro struggles to govern as Venezuelans reminisce about the more comedic predecessor.
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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a May Day rally in Caracas May 1, 2013. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Last month, Venezuela elected a president on the recommendation of Hugo Chavez. But as the problems the country faces loom larger, President Nicolas Maduro is finding his predecessor's one-man show a difficult act to follow.

It was inevitable that whoever succeeded Hugo Chavez risked being seen as "egg without salt," a popular Venezuelan expression used to describe those lacking charisma. So to a country more inclined to be accepting of economic and social troubles, as long as there's some juicy political scandal to be discussed, there's nothing quite so damning as being as a huevo sin sal, a label Maduro is rapidly acquiring.

The Democracy Report

The signs were there even as the election results were being announced. The huge double-digit polling lead Maduro enjoyed over his rival, Henrique Capriles, at the start of the campaign was whittled down to a mere 1.5 percent margin of victory come election day -- a sorry contrast to the 11 percent victory margin Chavez had scored over Capriles five months earlier.

"We don't need jokes, or songs, or dancing politicians. We've had fourteen years of that and look where it got us."

"No matter what you thought of Chavez, at least he kept Venezuela entertained," says Marianna Hernandez. Hernandez never voted for Hugo Chavez, who died in March following his two-year battle with cancer, but nevertheless laughs along with a smartphone app that replays a selection of the politician's more comedic outbursts.

"Just listen to this one," she enthuses, tapping a speech bubble on her phone's screen.

"I am a-studying English because I want to see the Condoleezza!" Hugo Chavez's lyrical drawl, comedic even in his non-native tongue, rasps out from her phone's speaker. Marianna giggles along with the assembled crowd to the recording, a sound bite from Chavez's weekly Aló Presidente television show.

"Because, she does not a-speak a-Spanish, so I must to a-speak English with her," it continues.

Marianna shakes her head fondly as the recording ends. "It'll be a long time before we see anything like Hugo Chavez again," she laments.

***

"No one knows what they've got until they lose it," said Belkis Brito, the managing director of socialist television channel Guatopo TV, which she and her team run from the chavista stronghold of Santa Teresa del Tuy, an industrial conurbation on the outskirts of Caracas.

A member of one of the more radical factions of chavismo, Belkis works hard to propagate the ideologies of her comandante. From her radical perspective, she has little faith in President Maduro's commitment to the Bolivarian Revolution.

"We voted for him because he spoke passionately about the revolution," she said in an interview in the television studio, overlooking the asbestos roofs of the surrounding slum. "But Maduro is not continuing the fight with the speed that we need. We want to see concrete action."

President Maduro is not only feeling pressure from the chavistas who mourn his predecessor, he is also facing an opposition party that refuses to accept his victory in last month's elections. Citing over 3,000 counts of electoral fraud, the party's allegations range from multiple-voting in chavista-strong areas to polling booth intimidation. Such claims have been lent momentum by the U.S. government's refusal to legitimize Maduro's leadership on similar grounds.

"He's fighting a battle on two fronts," said Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Texas, "with an opposition that denies his legitimacy as president and with the chavistas who supported him only because Chavez told them to."

The crisis created by the opposition's refusal to legitimize the newly elected president has been magnified by a schism within the government itself. With the opposition barred from participating in congress until Maduro is recognized, decisions are being made by the shadowy "political-military command" fronted by Diosdado Cabello, the congress president and military-backed political powerhouse currently embroiled in a corruption scandal. Ultimately, the power wielded by Cabello within the government could turn into the most serious threat to Maduro.

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

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