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."

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.

"He's not the perfection we're looking for," said Caracas native Eluterio Rodriguez, "in fact we know almost nothing about him, but he was chosen by Chavez and that's enough for us."

With Chavez gone, Venezuela's problems are looming larger. The country's has an inflation rate of 22 percent, an economy starved of dollars, a thriving black market, and crime rates at a record high. Last year saw nearly 22,000 murders, giving Venezuela more annual homicides than the United States and Europe combined.

The Venezuelan public are fairly ignorant of the hard facts, which is not surprising given that their government does not publish crime statistics. When mentioned on the campaign trail, these problems are not talked of in terms of viable and austere plans for the future, rather in the context of populist blame-mongering, much in the style coined by Chavez himself.

"You think Nicholas is going to solve the crime problem?" shouted Capriles at the start of his provincial tour, mentioning little of his own strategies, "It's not like ripping open your shirt and saying 'I'm Superman!'"

A significant reason for Venezuela's general ignorance of the problems under Hugo Chavez is that Hugo Chavez was bigger than all of the problems. "His great ability was deflecting attention from the key issues," said Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of Latin-American Studies at Pomona College in California. As Jones put it, "Be it through blaming subordinates, creating other controversy, or his own infectious charisma."

Ubiquitous throughout the country, Chavez is visible from roadside advertisements, political campaign graffiti and high-rise apartment blocks. His face, 20 stories tall, beams out from these habitable billboards, hanging still from the rooftops.

While Nicholas Maduro talks about little more than Hugo Chavez (the website counts the number of times the ex-foreign minister has mentioned him since his death), his opponent Henrique Capriles, who ran his presidential election campaign under the Chavez-slamming slogan "There Is A Way", talks about little more than Nicholas Maduro.

"This is about you and I, Nicholas," Capriles proclaimed at one of his recent rallies, "forget what's past." As opposition leader, Capriles is doing his best to highlight the fact that while Maduro may have been chosen by Chavez, he's no replacement.

"Capriles finds himself in an awkward situation," Jones said. "He's walking a very fine line between attacking Maduro and praising Chavez, which he can't do now as he did last October."

"It's in both parties' interests to have the funeral go until the day of the election", said Gerardo Munck, who lectures in political science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "The more Chavez there is, the more their support bases will be mobilized."

Local polling organizations give Capriles very little chance of winning. Caracas-based firm Hinterlaces estimates he has just thirty-six percent of the potential vote compared to Madruo's fifty.

"Even if Capriles does win, he'll be unable to govern given the stranglehold that chavistas have over all public institutions," said Professor Jones. "He'd certainly be a better president than Maduro, but it's a matter of while the man may be right for the job, at this point the job isn't right for the man."

For the majority of the public in Venezuela, it seems the question is how the leader's Bolivarian Revolution with continue without its commander-in-chief. Both sides are promising to uphold his principles, but alterations seem inevitable, forced on the country by realities unrecognized in the campaign.

"The worry is not that chavismo will die,' said George Ciccariello-Maher, professor of Latin-American politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "Chavez was too popular a figure for that to happen. The concern is that it will be emptied of all its content and turned into just another ruling regime."

So while the election goes on and the candidates continue to act out their populist soap opera, Venezuela will go to vote on who put on the best show. And while the double-act distracts the voters from the issues, the focus on the fight may be distracting the players from the realities of the position they are campaigning for.

"It's going to be the most intense and dirty election in the history of Venezuela," said Professor Tinker-Salas. "We can only hope that both sides realize that there's going to be a country to govern afterwards."