Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Venezuela’s Election and the Future of Chavismo

by Shannon K. O'Neil
April 16, 2013

A woman walks past a mural depicting Venezuela's acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas April 12, 2013 (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters). A woman walks past a mural depicting Venezuela's acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas April 12, 2013 (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters).

On Sunday some fifteen million Venezuelans headed to the polls to choose between Nicolás Maduro (Chávez’s heir apparent) and Henrique Capriles (the opposition’s leader). In an election many expected to be a sweep for Maduro, official tallies showed Capriles falling short by less than 300,000 votes (1.6 percent of the total). Though it now seems unlikely that an electoral apparatus firmly in the hands of Chavistas will allow a recount or overturn the results, this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Venezuela’s democracy. And having Maduro at the helm in the coming months and years should complicate the legacy of Chavismo, helping Venezuela’s opposition in the medium to long term.

Venezuela’s incoming president inherits serious problems with no easy solutions. The currency is overvalued, inflation is already high, the government is running a deficit near 20 percent of GDP (compared to 7 percent in the United States), food shortages are common, as are electricity blackouts, and crime has skyrocketed. In the face of all these challenges, the next president will have fewer resources—oil production is declining (Venezuela makes and exports little else these days), and Venezuela has already tapped international markets and foreign governments for loans.

These problems will not only test the next president, but will also affect his popularity. Assuming it is Maduro in the Miraflores Palace, then Chavismo will incorporate both the boom and the bust years, complicating its narrative and legacy. By contrast, if Capriles takes the helm, the economic mismanagement and crime epidemic will be handed off to him and the opposition, freeing Chavismo from the fallout.

Venezuela’s presidents serve six year terms. But voters, through a constitutional recall clause, could change leadership anytime after the midpoint, in 2016. And by then, the full legacy of Chavismo would be more apparent, and potentially subject to a popular referendum.

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