In Crisis-Hit Venezuela, Even Opponents Miss Hugo Chavez

In Crisis-Hit Venezuela, Even Opponents Miss Hugo Chavez

A man walks next to a mural painting depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at 23 de Enero community in Caracas. (Agence France-Presse)


Since Hugo Chavez died two years ago, Venezuela's economy has tanked and the government has lurched toward more repressive tactics, triggering nostalgia among the late leftist firebrand's supporters and even his opponents.

Chavez's hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, has largely followed his mentor's script for "21st-century socialism," right down to the hours-long diatribes against "American imperialism" and the tracksuits in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

But without Chavez's charisma, he has struggled to rekindle the fervor that drew millions of Venezuelans into the streets in mourning on March 5, 2013, the day Chavez died after 14 years in power.

Maduro's approval rating has fallen to around 20 per cent -- 10 points lower than Chavez's record low -- putting their United Socialist Party at risk of defeat in legislative elections this year, when the opposition hopes to win control of the National Assembly.

The economic model that Chavez left behind -- bankrolling price controls and pro-poor programs with the oil giant's lucrative crude exports -- has gone sour as oil prices have plunged.

Venezuela, home to the world's largest oil reserves, has gone from 5.6 per cent economic growth in 2012 to a 4.0 per cent contraction last year, as its price per barrel has dropped from $102 to $49.

Products have vanished from supermarket shelves in the import-dependent country, where shoppers spend hours in line in the hopes of finding basic goods like medicine, deodorant and toilet paper.

"When Chavez was here everything was different. That man knew how to run the country," said Alejandro Herrera, a 64-year-old mechanic in a working-class neighborhood on the west side of the capital Caracas.

"It's sad to see how Maduro has gone along destroying everything he left behind. I'll always be a 'Chavista' in my heart, and I even admit I voted for Maduro, but I'll never be a 'Madurista.'"

'Opposition Chavistas'

That distinction is worrying Chavez's movement as it gears up for the still-unscheduled legislative polls.

"In October 2012, 44 per cent (of Venezuelans) defined themselves as 'Chavistas.' Last December, the figure was 22 per cent. The political capital of 'Chavismo' has been cut in half," said political scientist John Magdaleno.

Exasperated with the economic crisis and a rise in violent crime, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets last year.

The protests exploded into violence as the government responded with counter-demonstrations and a police crack-down, leaving 43 people dead, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested.

Chavez also faced protests during his rule, and even a short-lived coup in 2002.

His go-to response was usually to muster his supporters for a mass rally.

Maduro, 52, has taken a harder line, jailing opponents like protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

His government also issued a decree allowing the security forces to use deadly violence to control public demonstrations.

Because of such tactics, even the opposition prefers Chavez to Maduro, said Saverio Vivas, an opposition leader in a traditionally pro-Chavez neighborhood of Caracas.

"It's clear that when opposition sympathizers in the neighborhood compare the two, they see that shortages have gotten worse, while persecution and above all repression have increased," he said.

"In the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas, where Chavez enjoyed so much support, the differences between Comandante Chavez and his 'son' Nicolas
Maduro are so abysmal that a lot of people who were 'Chavistas' now consider themselves to be in the opposition," he told AFP.

"That's why it's possible now to talk about opposition 'Chavistas.'"

House divided

But Venezuela's opposition remains divided.

On one side, jailed leaders Lopez and Ledezma have launched a hardline movement called "La Salida," which translates as both "The Solution" and "The Exit," that sought to oust Maduro through last year's street protests.

On the other, Henrique Capriles -- the more moderate state governor who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 election to replace Chavez -- has distanced himself from them on certain issues, including their publication last month of a charter calling on Venezuelans to adopt a "National Transitional Accord" to peacefully change the government.

And many Venezuelans, especially the 32 per cent who live in poverty, harbor residual loyalty for Chavez, whose face is still splashed across countless murals, banners and T-shirts nationwide two years after he died at age 58 after a battle with cancer.

Supporter Lisandro Perez says he will always back his "eternal commander."

"Even though Maduro is running the government, Chavez is still the one showing us the path to follow, even in death," he said.

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