By Russell Piffer
As the body of Hugo Chavez lies in state in Caracas, talk is already heating up about the direction of Venezuela’s political future.
Venezuela’s constitution says an election is to be held 30 days after the death of a sitting president.
Most likely, acting president Nicolas Maduro will likely take on Henrique Capriles, who was soundly defeated by Chavez in October’s presidential election.
Capriles is the governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second most populous state and has said he admires the policies of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“[Capriles] is seen as kind of the new guard of opposition. He seems much more pragmatic than much of the old guard of opposition,“ Dan Beeton from the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research told Humber News.
Capriles, who says he would maintain many of Chavez’s more popular policies, lost the October election to Chavez by about 11 points and polls show he would likely lose a contest with Maduro, Beeton said.
“The popularity of the opposition is always exaggerated by the media,” Beeton said.
Chavez, who died in Caracas on Tuesday at age 58, handpicked Maduro as his successor in a televised address in December, CNN reported.
“My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon — irrevocable, absolute, total — is … that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president,” Chavez said in the address.
Chavez was president from 1999-2013.
Maduro is a former bus driver and union leader who served six years as foreign minister before being named vice-president and vows to continue Chavez’s socialist policies.
“Chavez has shown us a superior human state: socialism,” Maduro, 50, said on state television, Reuters reported. “We are absolutely firm on the goals, plans and spirit of this program.”
“Our people want to continue consolidating a socially inclusive model that gives protection to all, economic stability and progress, and true democracy,” he said.
During his 14 years in office, Chavez altered Venezuela’s economic landscape, through investments in social spending and nationalization of the oil industry.
According to the Washington Post, Venezuela’s poverty level dropped from about 55 per cent in 1998 to 28 per cent in 2008.
From 2004 to 2007, its economy grew by an average of 11.85 per cent annually, according to Center for Economic Policy and Research statistics.
Chavez’s “Bolivarian Initiatives” to improve public services, education, and healthcare made him enormously popular with the poor.
At the same time, he drew ire for his record on human rights and freedom of the press.
“Chávez’s presidency was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees,” Human Rights Watch said on its website.
According to the organization Chavez reduced judicial independence, adding 12 seats to the 20-seat Supreme Court and filling them with pro-government representatives in 2004.
Chavez also called for the imprisonment of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni after she granted liberty to a prominent government critic who’d been jailed for nearly three years awaiting trial, Human Rights Watch Reported.
In 2007, Chavez refused to renew the broadcast license of the country’s oldest private network RCTV and took away its broadcast equipment. Three year later, the channel was ordered off of cable.
Beeton told Humber News that calling for Afiuni’s jailing was “indefensible” but his human rights record held up well against the previous administration.
He said RCTV was shut down because it had supported the 2002 coup against Chavez.
“If that had happened in the U.S. the government would have shut it down too,” Beeton said. “The extent private media has been curtailed under Chavez has been greatly exaggerated.”
“The important point here is that the public media in Venezuela still only has 5.4 per cent of the audience, so it’s still dominated overwhelmingly by the private media,” he said.