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Jesus Christ vs. Change in Venezuela

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
April 10, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo.

Two campaign ads tell the whole story of why this weekend's election in Venezuela is a fait accomplis. As reported by the New York Times, Brazil's top political campaign mogul Joao Santana's ad, "He Will Be Born Again," equates Hugo Chavez with Jesus Christ in a montage of cheesy images evoking peace and harmony and of Chavez devotees praying. Nicolas Maduro's name isn't mentioned, but why bother? Together with the slogan introduced during Chavez' s final days, "I am Chavez," the ad implies that by voting for his anointed successor, even mortal Venezuelans have a chance at eternal life.

The other ad, posted by the blog Caracas Chronicles, makes a noble attempt to focus the vote on economic mismanagement and poverty. Using simple animation and a lot of statistics—who knows if they are accurate—the ad argues that despite $620 billion in oil revenues during his presidencies, Chavez failed to reduce poverty by as much as Venezuela's neighbors did during the same period. Instead, Chavez bought the voters' love by using revenue to push consumption, driving up the import bill rather than investing in jobs and productivity. The ad concludes: if you want progress and policies that reduce poverty, vote for change. And then we see a photo of Henrique Capriles, but the voiceover never mentions his name.

In the October 2012 election, 44 percent of Venezuelans actually did vote for Capriles and change. With turnout likely to be much lower this weekend, it is hard to predict the spread. But comparing the messages of the ads—Jesus Christ vs. Change—makes it pretty clear how tough it will be to defeat inevitability.

The only Venezuelan political actor in a worse spot than the preordained loser is the winner, Nicolas Maduro. After this weekend, Capriles can take a vacation, write a memoir, perhaps burnish his credentials in the private sector, and maybe plan for 2020. Maduro, however, will at some point have to contend with the political consequences of inflation, scarcity, homicides, corruption, and the unenviable job of brokering between competing strands of chavismo likely to clarify themselves in the medium term.

Without his mentor's strategic advice (little yellow birds don't count) and without an experienced team to rebuild the economy, how long can Maduro reasonably expect to survive on Chavez's legacy? Yes, chavismo is here to stay. And yes, he will remain adored and revered because he helped millions move from invisibility to visibility. But his tenure also produced what one analyst described as a both a "vibrant civic culture" and a "merciless political culture." The analogy is imperfect but as on other matters of state, Maduro might do well to study how deftly Raul Castro has moved to substitute his brother's charisma with substantive policy changes. Can Maduro follow suit?

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