Since the late 1990s - which from today´s vantage point seems a distant, almost pre-historical era - no other Latin American head of state has been as charismatic, polarizing, witty, hated and loved, and - deeply ironical - long-lived in office as Hugo Chávez.
First elected in 1998, the former lieutenant colonel and 1992 golpista (leader of a coup) made sure that in the years to come he would keep a firm grip on power, which he himself projected to last until 2019 - at least.
Now the comandante is gone. What does this mean for Venezuela, what should be done to avoid violence and chaos?
Dragon in the tropics
Some called Chávez a “dragon in the tropics” and brujo (wizard). Many others saw in him the reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela´s 19th century independence hero. Or simply an annoying, endlessly talking South American autocrat and populist who used his advantage of presiding over the sub-continent´s largest oil economy to prop up governments of small, poor countries in the region that professed to be followers of his Bolivarian revolution; and to buy sophisticated weaponry from Russia and China and support regional left-wing insurgencies like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Venezuela without Chávez is a potential powder keg
What Chávez achieved or not is open to debate. Time and serious scholarship will tell. But politically there is an enormous difference now between Venezuela before and after 5 March 2013: Chávez alive, Chávez gone. A country that has been ruled by one and the same man for more than fourteen years - and ruled, I would say, without effective checks on the president´s power and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the armed forces, the media and civil society – does not easily recuperate from the loss; and it does not easily chart a peaceful way forward. Venezuela with Chávez had many serious problems. Venezuela without Chávez is a potential powder keg.
Managing political change – thirty crucial days ahead
In accordance with the 2000 constitution, Vice-President Nicolás Maduro has taken over from Chávez. The new interim head of state is a hard-talking leader of the “boliguesía” (the spoiled upper crust of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement), former foreign minister, MP, bus driver and Chávez confident. Fresh elections will have to be scheduled within thirty days after the president´s death. Only last October, an ailing Chávez had won yet another resounding election victory over his political opposition, which since its dreadful performance during the obscure moments of the 2002 coup against the Bolivarian president, has been gaining in strength but has yet to prove that it is up to the challenge of governing democratically and for the people.
These thirty days will be crucial for Venezuela´s future. Among his first acts, President Maduro ordered the army and police out onto the streets across the country to maintain the peace. Venezuela´s armed forces are under oath to protect the Bolivarian revolution and Chávez´s “Socialism of the 21st Century”. There is no doubt that together with – or alongside – several popular militias that were created by the late president, the country´s armed forces could play the role of king maker or deal breaker, depending on the evolution of the uncertain political process ahead. It is the responsibility of the interim government to guarantee free and fair elections; and it is the responsibility of the political opposition to play by the rules and make every effort not to seek revenge but to project a feasible democratic future for all Venezuelans.
The international community should support Venezuela to achieve a new democratic settlement
As heads of state from across Latin America and representatives of other governments that are part of the alliances Chávez built across the globe flock to Caracas to pay their tribute, they should keep their focus on the most important of all issues in this time of change: Venezuela, the patria (homeland) of Simón Bolivar and so many other notable minds, is a key player in the Western Hemisphere and beyond. Once a model social democracy of the South, the country and its citizens now deserve support in achieving a new democratic political settlement. Many in Venezuela and beyond are aggrieved by Chávez´s death and afraid of what the future might bring. But this should not stop them to seek a constructive way forward. The adversaries of the Bolivarian revolution, foremost the US government, are called upon to do just the same.