On Sunday, Venezuela will elect a president other than Hugo Chávez for the first time in two decades, marking a paradigm shift for the Latin American nation and its neighbors. Interim president and former bus driver Nicolás Maduro faces governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles in what has been a breakneck campaign following the death of former president Chávez last month.
While Maduro, who served as Chávez’s vice president, has consistently shown a healthy lead in polls since the beginning of the presidential race in March, opposition leader Capriles came closer than any candidate before him to defeating the former president in the 2012 election. And like the late demagogue himself, the upcoming election could hardly be more polarizing.
For all practical purposes, Maduro has pledged to extend and strengthen the socialist policies of the former president, a claim bolstered by the fact that Chávez himself endorsed the leader shortly before his death. Capriles, on the other hand, represents a political perspective based on increased foreign trade and economic freedom, although most analysts expect him to maintain many of the former regime’s more popular social programs.
“One candidate is clearly in the 20th century socialism camp, and has prospered by assuming an anti-U.S. and often anti-Colombian position, whereas Capriles is much more in the mainstream in terms of advocating closer relations with the U.S. in particular,” said Peter Hakim, President Emeritus of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington D.C. think tank focused on Western Hemisphere issues.
Polar opposites and common ground
Indeed, the two candidates could hardly be more different in most regards, although both are undeniably savvy politicians with lengthy careers as leaders and public servants. “Maduro is a militant member of Chávez’s Fifth Republic movement and has been a part of the party for a long time. Capriles belongs to the upper class, unlike Maduro. They have different backgrounds, but neither is a political outsider,” said Martha Márquez, director of the Latin American Studies program at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.
While neither candidate might represent a complete game-change for Venezuelan politics, both having been part of the political system for decades, Maduro at least seems to suggest a degree of predictability in that he represents the furtherance of so-called Chavismo. To a certain extent, that continuity could be positive for Colombo-Venezuelan relations, which rebounded dramatically during the Juan Manuel Santos administration after several tense years.
“With Maduro, there is a sense of continuation. He played a key role in helping improve relations between Chávez and Santos,” noted Márquez of the potential relationship between a Maduro administration and President Santos. “He could also help the peace process by not disrupting communication with the FARC.”
A nod to Havana
However, many in Colombia and Venezuela have criticized Maduro precisely for his presumed proximity to the guerrilla group currently in negotiations with the Colombian government in Cuba. If not openly antagonistic, a Capriles government would not likely be supportive of the FARC dialogues to the same extent as Chávez and his administration.
Regardless, Colombia’s internal conflict seems unlikely to loom large for the next leader of Venezuela as the nation faces a floundering economy still largely based on oil exports. Any president will need to seek ways to improve the nation’s financial situation.
“Venezuela will need more foreign investment. They can’t generate enough money from oil sales,” said Hakim. “My sense is that Venezuela will be driven not so much by personality as by the economic situation in the country.”
Tremendous shoes to fill
Indeed, both candidates face the almost insurmountable challenge of living up to a leader often renowned more for his legendary charisma than for his policies. Even with Chávez’s blessing, Maduro seems largely incapable of generating anything resembling the cult of personality that surrounded the former president. Capriles has drawn large crowds and given passionate speeches, but the dramatic departure his policies represent from those of Chávez undermine enthusiasm among the late leader’s followers.
“I think it’s impossible for anyone to sustain the kind of leadership that Chávez provided. He was an extraordinarily skillful politician, orator and communicator. He had almost a political witchcraft,” explained Hakim.
However, that same political fervor often generated tension with neighbors and trade partners, particularly Colombia and the United States. Economic pragmatism forced Chávez to tolerate the militant rhetoric of George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe, and the United States continued to buy oil from Venezuela even as Chávez backed enemy regimes in Iran and other OPEC nations. The elections of President Santos and President Obama helped smooth over some of the more egregious differences between Colombia, its North American ally and Venezuela, but plenty of work remains for Chávez’s successor.
“Santos worked hard to improve relations between Chávez and Colombia, and Colombia will work hard to maintain that relationship,” said Hakim. “I don’t see any strong reasons for disagreements, particularly if the peace process with the FARC is successful. That would remove one of the main sources of antagonism between the two nations.”
While Colombia and its allies will undoubtedly eye the election on Sunday with cautious optimism and curiosity, most expect the transition of power to go smoothly, particularly in light of the largely peaceful memorial services following Chávez’s death.
“Venezuela doesn’t have a tradition of political violence,” said Márquez regarding the possibility of unrest following the election on Sunday. “Maybe something could happen if Maduro were to lose and not accept his loss, but it’s not likely.”
Whether the people of Venezuela decide to trust the wisdom of their former leader or take an entirely new direction, their choice will mark a truly historic moment. An entire generation never having experienced a president other than Hugo Chávez will witness a nation forging a new identity.