Grief and anxiety greet new Venezuela leader

Supporters grieve death of the charismatic, polarising Hugo Chavez as little-known vice president takes office.

    Grief and anxiety greet new Venezuela leader
    Some Venezuelans lined up for more than 16 hours to catch a brief glimpse of Chavez's coffin [EPA]

    Caracas, Venezuela - As international dignitaries and socialist politicians greeted the inauguration of interim Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, tens of thousands of supporters of the "Bolivarian Revolution" viewed the televised ceremony with a mix of grief, hope and apprehension.

    Broadcast as mourners cued for hours attempting to get a final glimpse of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the inauguration brought the medieval phrase "the king is dead, long live the king" to mind for at least one onlooker.

    Presiding over sweeping changes, Chavez governed for 14 years, redistributing the country's vast oil wealth and winning more free elections than any other leader in the Americas.

    "He was the best thing in the world," Caracas resident and mourner Evelyn Gonzalez told Al Jazeera. "He did many things for the country and became a legend," she said, cautioning that "we have to see what the other politicians do", in reference to Maduro.

    Gustavo Bracamonte, a mechanic in Caracas, told Al Jazeera that "for me, the biggest achievement of Chavez was increasing social inclusion".

    'In our hearts'

    Gustavo Bracamonte said Chavez's biggest achievement was increasing social inclusion [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

    Despite rising inflation, worsening crime and increased dependency on oil exports at the expense of the manufacturing sector, working-class supporters of the deceased president saw a reflection of themselves in Chavez.

    Some people lined up for more than 16 hours, travelling by bus from the countryside just to get a glimpse of his coffin for a few seconds.

    Marbella Ochoa, a community leader from the indigenous Wayuu tribe in western Venezuela, travelled for more than 12 hours to show her support.

    "He [Chavez] did many good things for the poor and us indigenous people," Ochoa told Al Jazeera. "He enacted new laws protecting us and our lands; now we feel included [in the political process]. He will always be in our hearts."

    Strong emotional connections between "El Comandante" and his supporters, bordering on a personality cult, were on full display during his funeral and the swearing-in of his successor on Friday.

    'Fraudulent process'

    But supporters of Venezuela's opposition were not impressed with the transition of power from Chavez to Maduro, calling it "fraud".

    In the days following Chavez's death on March 5, opposition leader Henrique Capriles called for unity among Venezuelans in a society polarised by individual politicians and their vastly different ideologies.

    After the inauguration of Maduro, Capriles - a state governor defeated by Chavez in October's presidential election - came out swinging. "We are not going to permit that the sorrow that the people feel be an excuse for the abuse of power, for constitutional fraud," said Capriles. "The people didn't vote for you, boy," the opposition leader said, addressing Maduro directly.

    The two men are set to square off in an upcoming presidential election. Maduro is favoured to win: Polling carried out in February, when Chavez was still in the hospital, indicates that Maduro would win 46.4 of the vote compared to 34.3 percent for Capriles, according to Venezuelan firm Datanalisis.

    Even to his many critics, Chavez was a larger-than-life figure. Arguably the most internationally recognisable South American leader in the past decade, he presided over a significant decrease in the poverty rate, a souring of relations with the US and a series of high-profile international agreements.

    Maduro, on the other hand, is known for his loyalty to the Chavista cause and little else. A bus driver with connections to the Cuban government, Maduro rose through the ranks of the union movement to become vice president and now interim leader. He has promised to call elections quickly, and most observers believe it is in his interest to do so.

    "I think Maduro has the ability to present himself as the bereaved successor, to take advantage of a powerful emotion - grief - and turn that into something that benefits the Socialist Party," Max Cameron, a Latin America expert at the University of British Columbia, told Al Jazeera. "There is no reason to expect that popular support for what Chavez wanted to do will disappear."

    Logistical problems

    Yet while several elections since 1998 have confirmed that a majority of Venezuelans support Chavez's vision for society, many are angry about day-to-day inefficiencies in government.

    Juan Diaz Salas, a trade union official in Caracas, waited 12 hours to see Chavez's coffin before giving up. "The coordination wasn't great," Salas told Al Jazeera of the event. "They [officials organising the memorial] let too many people cut the line."

    Chavez memorabilia was sold at the Venezuelan leader's funeral [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

    Praising Chavez as a "world leader who dealt with all the humble and poor people", Salas isn't as passionate about the Socialist Party's new leaders. "The ones coming into power now aren't as prepared as Chavez was," he said.

    Complaints about inefficient bureaucrats hired for political reasons are common across Venezuela, and if Maduro wins the next election he will have to work quickly to build a connection with the public. Perhaps more importantly, he will also have to tackle public-sector bodies frequently accused of corruption and mismanagement.

    While healthcare, education and social spending improved significantly during the Chavez era, critics believe some of the oil money has been wasted.

    During Chavez's tenure, the country relied heavily on crude exports to the US, despite the government's anti-imperialist rhetoric.

    'People feel stronger'

    "I think Venezuela has all of the classic problems of an oil-based economy," Cameron said. "In the long run, sustained economic growth demands investments in innovation, productivity and such. It's hard for oil countries to do this." Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of Venezuela's exports, compared with 80 percent in 1999 when Chavez first took office.

    Government supporters note that oil wealth has been shared more fairly during the Chavez era, even if economic diversification and government waste continue to hamper development. "We have problems, sure, but it's a process," Michael Mijares, a translator, told Al Jazeera as he smoked a cigar while watching mourners stand in line.

    "The people feel stronger now. Chavez helped people see the world in a different way," he said, as crowds watched Maduro don Venezuela's red, yellow and blue presidential sash.

    Does he believe Maduro can carry on the deceased leader's project? "Chavez is Chavez: you can't compare the other leaders to him," Mijares said. "The other leaders were his pupils."

    Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEChris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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