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January 3, 2013

Big Shoes to Fill Globally

By

Delivering Chavismo without Chávez will be a daunting challenge. Many predict it cannot be done.

Politically, heir apparent, vice president and foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, must preserve unity within the United Socialist Party, fend off internal rivals and set an ideological path for the future. Chávez promised that between 2013 and 2018 he would make his experiments with “socialism of the 21st century” irreversible. Yet socialism in Venezuela remains consistently inconsistent.

Chávez won reelection this October with a striking 55 percent of the vote. Yet polls show that likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is more popular than Maduro or any other Chavista. Clearly, Maduro cannot match Chávez’s populist appeal. But the electoral machine and the sympathy vote will favor him.

Another key challenge for the next leader will be keeping out-sized promises. After an orgy of social spending in 2012, Venezuelans’ expectations are pitched high. Promises for jobs, new homes, health services and free appliances could fall flat, perhaps even at the same time as a post-electoral hangover.

Venezuela suffers from high public debt, accelerating inflation, potential devaluation and slowing growth. The national oil company PDVSA, the country’s economic life support system, is in trouble. It’s even importing refined gasoline from the U.S. From failing infrastructure to one of the world’s highest per capita homicide rates, the next president faces a tough phalanx of domestic challenges.

Finally, Chávez is known for strutting on the international stage, playing bad boy to the United States. The Ahmadinejads, Castros and Ortegas of our world could count on a hero’s welcome in Caracas, along with a replica of the Great Liberator’s sword. Saddled with serious problems — and lacking the charisma — Chávez’s heir will probably be hard-pressed to cast the same giant Bolivarian shadow over the international landscape.

First appeared in The New York Times' "Room for Debate."

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