The Venezuelan Comandante and President Hugo Chávez died of a heart attack on Tuesday according to his Communication’s Minister Ernesto Villegas. The rumor of his death was already circulating among Venezuelans in Miami, who have been accusing the government of infringing on their country’s sovereignty for taking decisions from Havana. On Tuesday social media sites were polarized with supporters grieving for his death and the opposition celebrating the return to freedom and democracy. Chávez will be remembered as the Venezuelan’s “most popular and loved president” or as the “most hated and cruel president.” However history’s record will depend on who will lead the country in thirty days from today and how things will unfold after the election.
For almost fourteen years Chavez held the position of president and Commander of the Army- a title that he used as an excuse to blur the line dividing civilians from the military. As president, he led one of the most radical social programs intended to alleviate extreme poverty through the nationalization of natural resources and the expropriation of private property from individuals who were considered “too wealthy and greedy.” During his administration, the central government reformed the constitution through national referendum in order to allow him to be re elected as president for an indefinite number of times. Compulsory military education and “comunas” (a form of local collective organization controlled by the central government) were forcibly imposed on all states. His government also did away with the senate, in favor of creating a unicameral legislative body similar to that of Cuba. His scopes of power were such that he alone changed permanently the name of the country and the design of the flag.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the founding of a political party (PSUV: United Socialist Party of Venezuela), which added 7,253,691 members in 2007 in a country with only 28 million people. The opposition Party, MUD (United Democratic Roundtable), systematically filed claims against the government due to complaints of “intimidation and threats” presented by state employees who alleged being coerced into becoming party members or risk losing their jobs. Another distinctive aspect of Chavez’s presidency was his anti- imperialism and his open disgust for the United States and the “Piti Yankees” (derogatory terms used by Chavez when referring to Americans).
Now that he is dead, many in Venezuela are celebrating, thinking that Mr. Maduro, Chavez’s vice president and appointed successor, will not be elected president. A post- Chavez Venezuela may become more moderate and acquiescent but the opposition’s prediction is wrong.
Since Tuesday, Maduro has been talking more like Chavez, while using the state controlled media to orchestrate a new “conspiracy theory” accusing the United States and the MUD for Chavez’s death. Furthermore, there are rumors that the Cuban government will send thousands of Cubans to Venezuela this week to vote with fake IDs in the coming election. These rumors are substantiated by the fact that one member of my family in Havana is among those who were notified on Tuesday by the Cuban authorities about the “emergency travel.”
There are currently 16,695 Cuban nationals working for the Venezuelan government. Many of them work for SAIME and the voting registration agency. These groups control IDs and determine which votes count and which votes don’t. It is expected that thousands of Cuban nationals will be voting for Mr. Maduro with fake IDs provided by the government. Of course, a change in government in Venezuela could cost Castro’s Cuba the stability achieved since 1998.
With Chavez’s death, Venezuela will eventually be faced with their realities- a reality that has been hidden all these years behind flaming, divisive rhetoric that will inevitably fade away with time. For now, Mr. Maduro has a good chance to win the elections and the support of foreign governments with a keen interest in Venezuela’s foreign policy to remain intact.
Capriles and the MUD still need to connect with those who supported Chavez. Capriles has to prove to Venezuelans that he will work for the people and that he will not take back some of the most popular social programs helping out millions of needy Venezuelans. The future is promising for Venezuelans, but Chavez’s death do not change a lot like many believe.