More Chavismo than Chávez

Letter From Caracas

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a meeting outside Miraflores Palace in Caracas.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a meeting outside Miraflores Palace in Caracas, November 12, 2013. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters)

Throughout the fall, things looked bad for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. His popularity was tanking; most Venezuelans blamed his government for the economic crisis that had been plaguing the country since the end of 2012. In just one year, inflation had soared from 20 percent to more than 50 percent, and shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials had become a part of everyday life. Efforts to control pandemic criminal violence hadn’t yielded significant results, either. The majority of Venezuelans believed that their country was headed in the wrong direction. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Maduro administration was set to lose the upcoming December 8 local elections -- and big time.

Then, at the beginning of November, Maduro launched an aggressive campaign to fix his image problems. He proclaimed an “economic war” against private businesses. He forced them to slash prices on their merchandise and urged the public to “empty the shelves.” Long lines of consumers have done exactly that, draining stores of electronics and appliances, clothing, and even toys. To be sure, Maduro’s campaign addressed the real needs of those looking to buy plasma TVs at rock-bottom prices, and it helped him take control of one of Venezuela’s biggest electronics importers. But he is gambling that his plan will be enough to convince the public that he is capable of steadying his country’s tumbling economy and protecting the interests of the disenfranchised. 

The long-term effects of Maduro’s populist strategy are yet to be seen. But the war on private businesses seems to have paid off in the short term. According to the latest polls, Maduro likely has the momentum he needs to win this weekend’s elections and give Chavismo a much-needed boost of energy. 

AFTER CHÁVEZ

Maduro is used to cutting it close. In 2012, a dying President Hugo Chávez bequeathed on Maduro a solid electoral majority, a party with an immense political propaganda machine, and the virulent rhetoric of Chavismo. To Chávez, Maduro was an obvious successor. He had been Chávez’s closest aid and had spent more time with Chávez than any other member of the inner circle during Chávez’s long treatments for cancer in Havana. But none of that came with charisma or strategic vision. In elections held just weeks after Chávez’s Pharaonic funeral, Maduro won merely 50.61 percent of the vote. 

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