The campaign for president in Venezuela began this past Tuesday with acting president Nicolás Maduro visiting Chavez’s house in the state of Barinas. During his visit, Maduro told the press another mystical story about Chavez appearing to him through a bird that flew over his head three times before delivering a message. During the interview with the state controlled Bolivarian Communications System, Maduro’s eyes started to water when he described what the bird told him.
According to Maduro, the bird – which he reiterated was Chavez’s spirit – blessed the campaign and assured him a victory. For some reason this episode resonated with me and reminded me of a 5th grade history class in a Cuban school about Fidel Castro’s speech on January 8, 1959 and the dove that landed on his shoulder.
The Venezuelan state, dominated by one political party, has copied almost exactly the myths used by Cuba in the 50’s and 60’s to convince the Cuban people that socialism is linked to Christianity and that political leaders transcend the earthly world of imperfect people. During these past fourteen years Venezuela has developed a personality cult around the figure of Chavez that can only be compared to Kim Jung Un in North Korean and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Since Chavez’s death on March 5th, Maduro has attempted to revive Chavez from beyond the grave by mentioning his name in all his speeches and by mandating that the media broadcast recorded programs from political rallies where Chavez was present. The United Socialist Party campaign uses the slogan: “Voting for Maduro is the same as Voting for Chavez.”
On the other side of the debate is the Venezuelan opposition, united under the Democratic Unity Table Coalition, which has continued to complain about the excessive use of the state’s resources to finance Maduro’s campaign. The opposition accuses Maduro of diverting attention from the urgent domestic issues affecting the country by using Chavez’s nationalistic rhetoric to avoid explaining the 22% inflation rate shrinking the economy and the recently imposed price controls.
However, as an opposition deputy from the National Assembly told Chavez during his State of the Union speech last year, “the mothers in this country know what is going on, they are the ones who have to wait countless hours in line to get a gallon of milk, if there is any left, to feed their children.” Last month the provisional government devaluated the currency for the third time since 1999 and tightened the already stringent control on the private market.
The opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski started his campaign in Estado Monagas and, according to his campaign manager, will end the campaign in Caracas. Radonski proved to be a strong contender to chavismo last October when the vote was almost split in half. His campaign focuses on bringing security to a county with 45.1 murders per 100,000 people. Radonski also promised to maintain the housing and medical programs initiated by Chavez and to protect the media from further government intervention and censure. The state controlled media wasted no time and immediately linked him to the United States and the neoliberal economic system they see as protecting the rich at the expense of the poor.
This is the first week of campaigning for the presidency of a key Latin American state that is responsible, with Cuba and Nicaragua, for using populist means to bring the radical left back into power. Yesterday an independent poll showed Maduro leading with 55% of the vote. However, it is still too soon to speculate. In the meantime, many will keep an eye on Venezuela to see whether the Bolivarian regional integration proposed by Chavez should be continued or new leadership should be sought elsewhere.