Everybody loves a re-match. Being the sporting aficionados that they are, Venezuelans are no exception. On Sunday April 14th 2003 for the second time in six months, Venezuelans headed to the polls in a presidential election pitting President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela against oppositionist challenger Henrique Capriles. The most unusual aspect of this second go-around is that Chavez of course passed away on March 5th. As Venezuelan Chavistas are well versed in the art of electoral inventiveness the absence of Chavez is a hardly an obstacle at all. Given its dismal economic and crime-inducing policies, and mostly that its official candidate Nicolas Maduro is bereft of the firebrand magnetism that marked the former president, Chavista strategists have decided its best course of action is to run Chavez for president for a fifth time, only this time by proxy.
That Henrique Capriles is simply running against the memory of Chavez does not begin to describe current atmospherics in Venezuela. In election campaigns it is not at all uncommon for a successor to garner public sympathy following the death of the incumbent. The difference in Venezuela is that by necessity the centrality of the campaign strategy of Nicolas Maduro is to seize on the cult of personality Chavez manufactured for himself while alive and to magnify it to pseudo-sainthood levels after his death. Think Eva Peron. Chavez largely disappeared from public view shortly after his Presidential victory in October 2012 while his true condition with cancer continued to be a guarded state secret. At some point it must been communicated to government insiders that the president’s cancer was terminal and that the imperative for the surviving Chavista leadership was to fashion a strategy to ensure its succession.
For Chavista strategists the electability of Maduro may have initially seemed to be a daunting task. Maduro is widely regarded as a bland bureaucrat whose sole talent was his steadfast loyalty to Chavez. In the run ups to the October 2012 presidential election Maduro polled far behind both Chavez and Capriles in hypothetical election scenarios. For Capriles-Chavez II, government strategists have dug deep into the Chavez playbook in recycling election tactics. In addition to magnifying the Chavista mystique and ensconcing Maduro within it, other elements of the Maduro succession strategy have played out. First was for Chavez to name Maduro his successor, and upon Chavez’s death for Maduro to illegally be inserted as the acting President. Another stratagem has been to communicate the unabashed partiality of the armed forces in favor of Maduro. Last has been the fabrication of events to demonstrate U.S. misconduct against Venezuela. This holistic strategy was formulated specifically for Maduro to ignite a wave of sympathy following Chavez’s death, and to keep this trash fire burning through the short 30 day interim period concluding with the special presidential election on April 14th. That the intent of the tactics are readily obvious, and that they border on the bizarre, ridiculous, and intellectually insulting are not a concern for Maduro, such as they never were for Chavez. Chavez’s theatrics while he was alive were always intended primarily for internal consumption as this is the only audience that can vote in Venezuelan elections.
The execution of the Chavista strategy was evidenced on December 8th 2012 when Hugo Chavez, in one of his last public appearances, named Maduro as his designated successor. Maduro was ushered in as president following Chavez’s death thus disregarding Venezuela’s constitutional rules of succession where the Speaker of the National Assembly is next in line. Maduro proceeded to kick Chavez’s government-resourced cult of personality into overdrive. The heretofore colorless Maduro has taken to robing himself in Chavez’s personality in assuming his manners of dress and bombast. Emulating Chavez’s public religiosity and political use of such symbols, Maduro has insinuated that Chavez is guiding him from the afterlife. In a move that not surprisingly occurred the day of Chavez’ death, two U.S. Air Force attaches (including my replacement) were expelled from Venezuela allegedly for conspiring with would-be coup members. Maduro has also spewed accusations that the United States somehow must have implanted Chavez’s with cancer. Last have been proclamations from the top levels of the Venezuelan military leadership of its unbridled support for Maduro. This is intended to intimidate oppositionists and to lend a patriotic fervor to Maduro’s campaign.
As can be expected the Maduro campaign has been devoid of any substantive discussion on Venezuelan hot-button issues and has focused instead on the mobilization of followers. The Maduro strategy underscores that in Venezuela that elections more about perception than an exercise in democracy. As the famous adage by Sun Tzu proclaims that a battle is won before it is fought, in Venezuela elections are ensured before the first ballot is cast. As has been well-documented the Chavista government controls the mechanisms of elections, a process designed to produce only one outcome, government victories. For Chavistas, elections are not simply about the transfer of presidential authority from one of its members to another. It’s about preventing regime change, preserving its way of life, and its continued hold on the font of all power in Venezuela, petroleum. An election serves as an opportunity for Chavistas to stage an event that demonstrates to its apologists that they are the true embodiment of Venezuelan sentiment. This provides Chavista governments plausible deniability that it has, for all practical consideration, disenfranchised its political opposition. In Capriles-Chavez I in October 2012, Chavez never intended and never did give Capriles a fair and equal opportunity to unseat him in a popular election. This is not something autocrats are wont to do. Chavez’s main task was simply to manage the perception of doing so, and thus he did.
As with all Venezuelan presidential elections, the stakes were high on April 14th and the stakeholders global. As Cuba is dependent on its Venezuelan petroleum lifeline, Cuba is nearly as impacted by an election defeat as are Chavistas. The anti-U.S bloc Chavez subsidized in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Argentina also hinges on the outcome. China and Russia have billions of dollars of skin in the Venezuelan game in loans and preferential business deals. These payoffs become less of a sure thing if Maduro is no longer in charge of the checkbook. Last, despotic leaders in Syria (Assad) and Iran (Ahmadinejad) stand to lose their biggest Latin American cheerleader and access point to the continent should Maduro be ousted from office. For Chavistas, presidential elections are therefore a Must Win situation. A relinquishment of power would not be easily reversed. It is not inconceivable that Chavista strategists have contingency provisions to circumvent a negative outcome. Supporting this idea is that notable opposition victories such as the December 2007 referendum and the election of an oppositionist mayor in the capital of Caracas in 2008 were effectively nullified by subsequent government measures.
By any stretch of the imagination the deck was stacked in this Sunday’s special presidential election in favor of the Chavista Goliath. Nonetheless as demonstrated by Arab Spring autocracies tend to have expiration dates. Rare is the sequel that is better than the original, nonetheless Capriles-Chavez II may ultimately prove to be the first act of that inevitable drama.