Venezuela left bemused as Chavez's song and dance end
Television stations in Caracas have been repeating a mantra: "Chavez has not died - he lives on in the revolution!" As with all slogans, you have to ask: if it were true, would anyone need to say it?
No one knows how Hugo Chavez's drive for "21st century socialism" will fare after his death, but there are strong indications that the proud isolationism he pursued will have to be corrected. That is certainly the view of the financial markets. News of the comandante's death, after a long battle with cancer, prompted a rise in the shares of oil companies frozen out of Venezuela by his campaign of nationalisation.
One thing is certain: Chavez is irreplaceable. The figure of a reformist military leader is not unknown in Latin America and, given the lock that the wealthy elites have on many of the continent's economies, sometimes beneficial. Nationalist diatribes against the United States are almost a political requirement.
But Chavez tempered his harsh edges with a mellifluous voice and an unpresidential habit of bursting into song. His origins - part black and part Indian - made him a genuine representative of the people of Venezuela, where 67 per cent are mestizo, while 21 per cent are the white elite. His commitment to sharing Venezuela's oil wealth among the poor was genuine.
All this lifted Chavez to the level of the "good Tsar", a quasi-religious figure who wants only the best for his people, and if things go wrong, it is the fault of rivals and underlings. Of course, that is rubbish. Chavez took all decisions himself: if Venezuela with arguably the largest oil reserves in the world is saddled with $120 billion (Dh440 billion) in debt, incompetent administration, an inflation rate of over 30 per cent and an economy stuck between Soviet-style command structures and the free market, then the blame is his, and his alone. But such is political wizardry.
Apart from his genuine success in alleviating poverty, Chavez's efforts were focused on dividing his opponents, at which he excelled, and gesture politics, which left him with some useless allies in the form of Iran and Syria.
Under his rule the murder rate has doubled, to reach 45 a year per 100,000 population. This is almost double that of Mexico (23). Mexico's problem is always in the news, but Venezuela's is rarely covered.
The reason for this anomaly may lie in the fact that Mexico's problem fits easily into a simple narrative: the blame can be laid at the door of Uncle Sam, for his taste for drugs and legal sale of guns over the counter. In Venezuela, the murder spike does not fit with the anti-Chavez propaganda of him heading a "communist dictatorship" (actually the police are weak and corrupt) or the good news of money, jobs and health care at last trickling down to the barrios. Again, such is political wizardry.
Chavez's chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is no political wizard. A former bus driver, he has the negotiating skills acquired from his trade union background, and he won respect for his input to the peace talks between the Colombian government and Farc guerrillas. He is credited with keeping the presidency on the road despite the erratic course charted by the president. But he has none of the charisma, or songs and jokes, which enabled Chavez to charm the attention of the masses away from the failures of his economic policy.
Mr Maduro is left with a bitterly divided country, an economy in crisis with shortages of basic goods, and a stock of political capital that will inevitably decline, not least because many of the key figures of Chavismo will be jostling to stay in the circle of power.
Chavez's war on capital shredded Venezuela's agricultural and industrial base that used to contribute to exports. Under his rule, the proportion of export earnings from oil has risen from 80 to 96 per cent, and the import bill is rising. The state oil company PDVSA, having lost many of its best staff and serving as a cash cow for social programmes, has proved incapable of raising output. Only thanks to high oil prices was Chavez able to continue his revolution.
Venezuela will need help from foreign oil companies to raise production, although it will surely be a long time before it goes cap in hand to ExxonMobil, which had its assets nationalised in 2007.
No one can deny that Venezuela needed to share its wealth more equitably. As for the future, it can keep borrowing, but that is hardly a strategy. The new government will have to have a longer-term vision for the country. Without Chavez's charisma, it will be hard to justify selling oil at a subsidised price to Cuba and other allies.
While socialist leaders are common in Latin America, there is a tendency for them - unlike Chavez - to dilute their beliefs with a strong dose of pragmatism. This was pioneered in Brazil by President Luiz "Lula" da Silva, a former left-wing activist, who is now seen as the most successful president in the country's history. Far from declaring himself a president for life, he quit in 2010. Dilma Rousseff, his successor, comes from the same political origin, having been jailed by the military authorities as a left-wing terrorist.
With its oil wealth, Venezuela is different: so long as the oil price is high, it can opt out of reality and pursue the form of bureaucratic socialism which failed in the Soviet Union. So pragmatism is not yet an urgent necessity. Nor will it be easy for a country that produced Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America from Spanish colonial rule.
Revolutions are never simple. They take years to achieve stability. Viewed from that perspective, Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" is an unfinished thing. A different set of people has taken power. The neglected poor have benefited. But there is no plan on how to use high oil prices to prepare Venezuela for the future. Beneath the oratory, corruption and maladministration are rife. This cannot continue forever. The work of aligning the rhetoric with the real world is left for Chavez's successors.
On Twitter: @aphilps
Updated: March 8, 2013 04:00 AM