Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 58. After 13 years in office, the former leader was re-elected just last October, and he leaves behind a highly controversial legacy.
On one hand, Chávez modernized Venezuela with an aggressive anti-austerity initiative. He capitalized on Venezuelan oil and used the profits to transform the nation’s domestic infrastructure into massive social spending projects. Some of these projects include nationalizing utility industries such as oil, steel, agriculture, transportation, and expanding health care and education benefits. He did this either by force or by purchasing a majority share in private companies.
On the other hand, Chávez massively centralized political power, presenting severe obstacles to democracy. For example, he circumvented the powers of the National Assembly and changed the Venezuelan constitution at will.
Chávez’s death creates a power vacuum that could drag potential successors into a difficult struggle for the office. The Venezuelan constitution stipulates that a new leader must be elected within 30 days. In the interim, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, will hold the post until a new leader is elected. It remains to be seen whether Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chávez himself groomed for the presidency, will make an attempt at Chávez’s old seat and expand presidential power. As the chosen successor to Chávez, Maduro could resist Cabello’s new position. It could provide a much needed chance for the opposition to unite behind Henrique Capriles, who lost the most recent election. Capriles represents a middle ground between a socialist distribution of wealth and an international capitalist market.
Questions also arise about the policies that the new successor would undertake. In the international arena, Chávez was doggedly persistent in his denunciation and critique of the United States as an imperialist regime. Will the new leader continue this approach?
In either case, we can hardly expect the new leader to exude Chávez’s charisma and gusto. Nevertheless, for reasons ranging from economics to oil and everywhere else in between, this election will determine the course of Venezuela’s foreseeable future.
A version of this article was published in the Wednesday, March 6 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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