One year after Chavez, Venezuela gropes for way forward

AFP , Monday 3 Mar 2014

Demonstrators roll a water pipe in an attempt to block a highway during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Hugo Chavez, the charismatic ex-paratrooper who for 14 years drove a socialist-inspired revolution in oil-rich Venezuela, died one year ago -- and his deeply divided country is in crisis.

Violent street protests that have left 18 dead, worsening living conditions and a darkening national mood have piled pressure on Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, and raised ominous questions about where the country is headed.

"This year without Chavez we have gone from bad to worse with insecurity, scarcity, inflation and currency problems," said Anabella, a 44-year-old anti-government lawyer.

"Could we be worse off?" she asked, as she banged an empty pot while marching in an opposition rally.

Chavez was 58 when he died on March 5, 2013 after an agonizing, two-year struggle with cancer that did little to prepare Venezuelans for what was to come.

A man who brooked no rivals, Chavez dominated Venezuelan life almost from the moment he stormed the national stage at the head of a failed military coup in 1992.

By the end of that decade, he had been elected president, setting himself on a long path to revolutionize a society riven by extremes of wealth and poverty.

In life, the energetic and garrulous Chavez was omnipresent. He was constantly on TV, on the radio, traveling the country and in the streets back-slapping supporters.

In death, Chavez's gaze stares at Venezuelans from billboards and t-shirts. His voice is heard on the radio singing the national anthem. He remains a staple of pro-government ads.

The poor "are connected politically, mystically and religiously with Chavez, his legacy and the Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century," said sociologist Maryclen Stelling.

So the government has kept Chavez's iconic figure and socialist-inspired policies front and center, making few concessions to a rising opposition.

On Wednesday, it plans to honor Chavez's legacy with a military and civilian parade.

But to what extent and for how long the larger-than-life "comandandate supremo's" popularity will transfer to Maduro is an open question.

Even as he was dying Chavez easily won re-election, but Maduro barely eked out a 1.5 percent victory in presidential elections a month after his mentor's death.

On February 4, anger over rampant crime detonated student-led anti-government protests in the western border city of San Cristobal, which then spread amid snowballing grievances to other cities, including Caracas.

The government responded with mass arrests of protesters, including a prominent opposition leader, further inflaming tensions and sparking violence, deaths and more arrests.

For the past month, Caracas and other cities have been the scene of daily marches, protests and sporadic nighttime clashes between stone-throwing youths and security forces armed with buckshot and tear gas.

"I've been unable to find toilet paper for the past three months," said Lucy Oliveira, a 40-year-old publicist. "And who's salary is enough to meet their needs? Tell me!"

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves but huge budget deficits and strict currency controls have left it with deepening economic problems, including 54 percent inflation and empty supermarket shelves.

There were similar problems under Chavez -- but through force of personality and control over the nation's institutions he kept public discontent in check.

"Chavez served as a containment dike... his words and charisma served as a lifesaver," said political scientist Angel Oropeza at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

"With his absence, the problems seem a lot more difficult."

Stelling doubts, however, that protests centered on the middle and upper classes are sufficient to force Maduro from power.

The opposition also appears divided over tactics, with the most hard-line among their leaders urging constant street protests under the slogan "the exit."

Maduro, who charges the protests are part of a US-backed coup attempt, has offered no way out.

Instead, his confrontational rhetoric has been all about "battles" and "offensives" leading to victory over the "empire" or the "fascist" opposition.

"At least Chavez had a project," 22-year-old college student Daniel Iglesias said recently, during a break from throwing stones at riot police.

A 20-year-old masked protester, taking cover behind a makeshift street barricade, had a slightly different opinion.

"For me, Maduro is worse than Chavez," he said, refusing to give his name. Chavez "would never have let the country reach this point. He had a heart for Venezuela."

Even some "Chavistas" qualify their support for Maduro.

Witnyson Colmenares, a student who was seven when Chavez first took office in 1999, said Maduro needs time to learn to be president.

"I'm sure that he'll do well. If not, 'El Comandante' would not have chosen him."

Government supporter Yanistra Hernandez, 46, blames the opposition for the growing economic hardships.

But, in a lower voice, she admits that unlike Maduro, Chavez "always knew how to resolve the problems."

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