Having won the Oct. 7 elections by a comfortable margin, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has turned to the future of his “Bolivarian” revolution. That the ailing 58-year-old leader is even thinking of the future is remarkable in itself. For better than a year now, the self-declared leader of “21st century socialism” has been battling an assortment of demons.
The Venezuelan economy is in disarray, plagued by rolling blackouts, chronic shortages of basic goods, and the highest inflation rate in the world. Violence is so rampant that the government no longer publishes crime statistics, while independent estimates call Caracas the most dangerous capital in the Western hemisphere.
Worse, Chávez has waged a year-and-a-half-long battle with an unspecified type of cancer that, despite his repeated claims of being “totally cured,” has forced him to the operating table three times in Cuba, where he has governed via conference calls and Twitter. All this has emboldened Venezuela’s historically dysfunctional political opposition, which—under the articulate young governor Henrique Capriles Radonski—garnered a historic 6.1 million votes in last Sunday’s presidential contest. One polling firm even predicted Capriles’s victory the day of the election.
The euphoria was short-lived. When the ballots were counted, Chávez had won a commanding 55 percent of the national vote. The result electrified his constituents: the urban poor, blue-collar workers, government employees, and small farmers that are the backbone of his 14-year Bolivarian revolution. The devotion is understandable. Chávez defeated not only an attractive and vigorous political rival, but death itself, turning the contest on the hustings into a national passion play.
Whether Chávez can manage the commotion and spin the revolutionary narrative for another six years are still open questions. Sure enough, the Venezuelan rumor mills—the country’s most prosperous industry—are churning again. Will Chávez’s disease return? If so, will he be forced to step aside before his mandate ends in 2019? And—the hummer of them all—who among the ambitious cast of princes and pretenders is likely to be the next Chávez?
One name that has loomed large in the past is that of Diosdado Cabello, a former military man who has stood by Chávez since the failed coup d’état they attempted in 1992. However, Cabello’s star has fallen since 2008, when he stood for election as governor of the rich and populous state of Miranda, losing to the then-rising promise of the opposition, Capriles. Other candidates said to be on the Bolivarian shortlist are the outgoing vice president, Elias Jaua, and the president’s own brother, Adán Chávez, governor of Barinas state.
But the dauphin of the hour is now Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, whom Chávez named last week as his next president for the newly won mandate. The appointment ignited the Venezuelan media, which promptly rolled out lengthy profiles and pored over Maduro’s political résumé. The former subway car conductor, who rose to union leader and then to the national legislature under the left-wing Fifth Republic Movement party, became a pillar of Chávismo and the president’s confidant.
Known as an even-tempered conciliator, he cuts a sharp contrast to the ring of fire-breathers and ideologues in Chávez’s inner circle. For Chávez, however, Maduro’s most politically endearing quality is his absolute loyalty to the Bolivarian cause, a trait that has fueled comment that he is the likely heir apparent. Driving the chatter over Maduro is the rising importance of the vice presidency, a once-decorative post that has won added visibility since Chávez’s life-threatening illness.
But don’t tell that to El Comandante, a leader who has taken care to squash all competitors, whether from the opposition or among palace rivals. “Chávez has no plans for succession,” says Diego Arria, a former diplomat and head of Freevenezuela.org, a political advocacy group. “He will only admit to leaving the presidency to meet his Maker.”
That might sound harsh, but Chávez’s triumph at the polls over a vigorous opponent and after a brush with death appear only to have encouraged him. The electronic voting machines were still warm when he began laying plans to “deepen” the revolution. First, sensing daylight, he called on his hemispheric allies, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to join the South American trading bloc, Mercosul.
Thanks to a diplomatic sleight of hand, Venezuela itself had just been inducted into that compact in July, after Chávez’s archenemy Paraguay was suspended from the group for having impeached its president, Fernando Lugo, a Bolivarian ally. Just what this troika of autocrats and standard bearers of 21st-century socialism intends to do in a commercial union committed to free trade and open democracy is a mystery, but Chávez was never one to let rules get in the way of the revolution. “Mercosul is finished as a free-trade organization,” says former Brazilian diplomat Rubens Barbosa, who helped negotiate the bloc’s founding charter. “Instead it’s become a political platform for the ambitions of sitting presidents.”
But Chávez’s biggest ambitions are at home. Fresh from his win at the ballot box, he is now focusing on the coming state elections in December. The contest to watch will be Miranda, the second-most populous state, currently governed by Capriles. Chávez’s trump card is Jaua, recently released from his duties as vice president to take the fight to the opposition.
The move looks brazen. Young, energetic, and articulate, Capriles is the opposition’s current best hope for wrestling power from the Bolivarians. He garnered 45 percent of the presidential vote, a record under the Chávez dynasty. And just four years ago, Capriles took the governorship of Miranda precisely by trouncing Caracas’s anointed candidate, Cabello, despite the Chávista campaign war chest.
But Chávez is nothing if not a strategist. Forget about a successor. Look for the Andean strongman to double down on the next campaign. Not only did he handily win the presidential race, he bested Capriles in 22 of Venezuela’s 24 states—including an 11-point advantage in Miranda. “You can be sure, Chávez is going to bet the farm on Miranda,” says Arria.
Cherry-picking Miranda would be a crippling blow to the rising opposition. But it also could create a problem for Chávez, hoisting Jaua into the national spotlight. And if there is one thing the Chávez revolution is unlikely to abide, it’s a second Bolivarian hero.