Since the death of long-time Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was announced on March 5, a harsh light has been cast on the economic and political future of the South American nation. The upcoming April 14 elections will be a referendum on whether the country will continue to operate as it did under the Chavez regime, or move in a new direction. These and other questions were the raised in a panel discussion titled “Latin America Post-Chavez” hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.
Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador for the Organization of American States (OAS), was a member of the panel. He said the upcoming elections between Chavez’ hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro and Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, represent a choice between democracy and the perpetuation of a state that has become increasingly isolated from the region and world.
“There’s a pending socioeconomic meltdown, rampant street crime, a faltering oil sector, bitter in-fighting within the Chavista movement, complicity with drug trafficking and terrorism,” Noriega said. “You see inflation, food shortages, power outages; a crumbling infrastructure which is taking a terrible toll more and more on Venezuelans across the board.” He emphasized that, despite the failing state, Maduro continues to walk in the footsteps of Chavez. “There does not seem to be any subtle pivoting in the economic policies, or political trajectory, or rhetoric of the regime."
Maduro is expected to capture the election over Capriles, who ran against Chavez in the October presidential election. Noriega credited this all-but-certain victory for Maduro to the “distinct institutional advantage” the Chavistas have over the opposition.
“They have of course some residual popularity,” he said. “Chavez was a popular figure to a considerable extent, particularly among the very poor, and they had this great institutional unfair advantage in access to the media, you know virtually most of the independent media was silenced…he could insist that every network in the country carry his speeches, which could go on for long periods of time,” while on the other hand, “the opposition has much less fewer resources to buy that kind of advertising and buy that access to the media that they would need to get their message out.”
Just last Wednesday, Maduro cut off informal talks with Washington, accusing the United States of playing a role in Chavez’ cancer diagnosis. An official with the U.S. State Department said such “bizarre” allegations call “into question whether we're dealing with rational actors."
Noriega similarly characterized the actions of Maduro, which haven’t stabilized the economy thus far, as illogical. “The Venezuelan economy…has been decimated over 14 years by gross mismanagement, staggering corruption, and policies that were really consciously meant to strangle the private sector,” he said. “I had thought maybe that [Maduro] would adopt a post-Chavez period, some sort of tactical moderation both politically and economically, but that does not seem to be the case.”