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After Hugo, who? Chavez

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The Venezuelan president's successor is unlikely to deviate from Chavez's path when he takes control of this nation with the world's largest oil reserves, says Shobhan Saxena.

Karl Marx has never stopped Hugo Chavez from embracing Jesus Christ in public. On Monday, as the Venezuelan president appeared on TV to tell the nation that he was heading to Cuba for his fourth cancer surgery in one-and-a-half years, he carried a small crucifix in his hand, often kissing it as he told people in a sombre voice that vice-president Nicloas Maduro would be his successor. Chavez often attends masses and invokes Jesus every now and then. "I am a Marxist to the same degree as the followers of the ideas of Jesus Christ. . . who can imagine Jesus to be a capitalist?" Chavez said in a 2009 speech to the National Assembly.

While speeches like this make the western media brand Chavez as some kind of loony leftist figure running a cult in Venezuela, many South Americans with exposure to Liberation Theology, which interprets the teachings of Christ in terms of "liberation from unjust economic, political and social conditions", are not shocked by Chavez's statements. They don't see any contradiction in his political beliefs and religious views. On Wednesday, as Chavez was being operated in Havana, his supporters, government ministers and members of the Socialist Party gathered for a vigil in Caracas. It was at this meeting that Venezuela's information minister Ernesto Villegas said that if Chavez doesn't return home for his January 10 swearing-in for a new six-year term, "our people should be prepared to understand it".

A new round of speculation about Chavez's health and the future of the country of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves soon began. Since Monday, western wires and newspapers have been running stories about Maduro, trying to guess what Venezuela will look like under him? A former bus driver, Maduro bacame a union leader at a young age and joined the revolution led by Chavez in the early 1990s. A close associate of Chavez, he rose to become president of the National Assembly. And in 2006, when he became foreign minister, he passed his previous post to his wife, Cilia Flores.

Though there is no guessing game about Maduro's politics, as he has been a close comrade of Chavez for more than two decades, there is a lot of speculation about his religious leanings. In one of Maduro's offices hangs a large portrait of Sathya Sai Baba, the Indian godman who passed away last year. The Venezuelan vicepresident and his wife are said to be followers. In 2005, Maduro and Cilia were given a private audience by Sai Baba in Puttaparthi. In a photo on the website of the Sathya Sai Foundation of Venezuela, Maduro and Cilia can be seen sitting at the feet of the godman.

While Maduro's "faith" in Sai Baba may interest only Indian diplomats, their western counterparts are worried about other pressing issues of the real world. They are eager to know his mind. It's not difficult to guess why the West is so anxious about who runs Venezuela. Recently, the South American country overtook Saudi Arabia as the number one in the world for proven oil reserves. That's why Venezuelan dollar bonds rallied sharply on Monday and debt insurance costs tumbled after the nomination of Maduro raised the prospect of Chavez"s departure after 13 years in power. With Chavez no longer on the scene, American oil and gas companies can dream of returning to Venezuela and its neighbouring countries, something they have been barred from doing in recent decades.

But it may remain a fantasy. Maduro may like Sai Baba, but he is Chavista. As Venezuela's foreign minister, he travelled the world denouncing US foreign policy and cultivating allies in emerging markets such as Russia and China. Earlier, in 1992, when Chavez was jailed for a failed coup, Maduro took to the streets to demand his release. If and when Maduro takes charge of Venezuela, there are no indications that he may deviate from Chavez's policies. It's a good sign for emerging countries like India. During his campaigns in this year's election, Chavez promised to increase oil production, cut down dependence on the US market and double crude exports to Asia. This could completely change the energy security ties between Asia and the Americas, and India, which now has the capability to refine the sour crude produced in Venezuela, could benefit. Also, with Venezuela spending huge amounts of money on free healthcare, education and technology upgrades, it's a good opportunity for Indian companies to partner in such endeavours. This is Hugo Chavez's real contribution to Venezuela and South America.

While it's too early to talk about Chavez's legacy, it is South American leaders like him who have proved two crucial things. First that the region is not a backyard of the US, and secondly that there is no conflict in wealth creation and social justice. In the past one decade or so, countries from Venezuela to Brazil to Argentina have used their new prosperity to create more egalitarian society. And the results are showing. In most economic indicators too - from inflation to debt to foreign reserves - the region beats both Europe and North America. Inclusive growth is not an empty slogan in this region, it is a living force, with countries like Venezuela successfully using their oil wealth to finance health clinics and free homes for the poor.

On Wednesday, at the vigil for Chavez in Caracas, the capital, people cried and prayed for his health. "He is a second Jesus Christ, " a woman said on national TV. The symbolism of her statement was not missed on anyone. Nicolas Maduro may have a portrait of Sai Baba in his office, but in his political rallies he too will be invoking Jesus.

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