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Long Live Chavism

Chavez is dead but not chavismo

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With poor voters feeling empowered for the first time, no government in Venezuela - or Latin America for that matter - can afford to roll back the social policies inspired by Hugo Chavez.

On Tuesday afternoon, while Hugo Chavez was still breathing piped oxygen in a hospital in Caracas, Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan president's deputy, called a meeting of the country's top generals and ministers. As Venezuela's leaders gathered in Maduro's office, the vice-president told them that two US Embassy air force attaches had been expelled for plotting a coup. "They've got 24 hours to leave Venezuela. Our national armed forces must be respected, " Maduro said. With these tough words just hours before he announced Chavez's death, Maduro conveyed two messages to the world. First, he was now in-charge of this oil-rich nation, and second, that Chavismo will not end with Chavez.

The West now have different expectations from Venezuela. Some analyses emerging from Washington to London suggest that Maduro would lose the impending election to the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a local governor who had received 46 per cent votes against Chavez in the presidential polls last October. Others see a more chaotic end of Chavismo: a conflict within the ruling United Socialist Party or a military take-over. In this imagination, Chavismo - a mix of socialism at home and a foreign policy to create a resistance bloc in the Americas - can't survive Chavez because, they argue, it's a cult that needs a strong leader.

In this argument, a little fact is conveniently ignored. On December 16, when Chavez was battling for his life after his latest surgery in Cuba, Venezuela voted to elect governors of 23 provinces. With Chavez incommunicado and Maduro "lacking his charisma", the opposition - and the western media - projected these elections as a turning point. But when the results came out, they had eggs on their faces as Chavez's party won in 20 provinces. They were baffled : why was this "evil regime" and "dysfunctional economy" not collapsing?

Now, with Chavez gone, the guessing game has started again, with an eye on the oil market. There was a sigh of relief in all western capitals on Wednesday as the price of crude changed little the day Chavez died. The Venezuelan made oil money the basis of his Social Missions at home and an instrument of foreign policy abroad. And here lies the crux of the tussle between Chavez and the US. While Washington never saw Venezuela as anything more than the source of oil, Chavez used his oil money to bring Latin America on a common platform by funding their social plans for poverty, hunger and healthcare. On this path, there could be no compromise, only collision.

The conflict started soon after Chavez came to power in 1999. In December 1994, when the Clinton Administration had hosted the first Summit of the Americas, an event attended by leaders from Canada to Chile, the government of Cuba was kept out of it. That was the height of Washington's domination of the Americas. Enter Chavez, the red-bereted paratrooper preaching a new kind of socialism and the governments and policies began to change in the whole region. Latin America no longer had to follow Washington's lead.

Though Chavez was caricatured by the West as a megalomaniac, he practiced what he preached. In 1995, the number of poor in Venezuela was 55 per cent. By 2009, this came down to 26 per cent. When Chavez came to power, the unemployment rate in Venezuela was 15 per cent;by 2009, it was down to 7. 8 per cent. Before he became president, millions of poor didn't have their names on voting lists and couldn't send their children to school because they did not have IDs. Chavez put the poor on the voting list, their kids in school and cheap groceries on their table. In exchange for oil to Havana, he brought 44, 000 Cuban doctors to Venezuela, giving a boost to the country's decayed healthcare system. Today, Venezuela has the most equal income distribution in Latin America.

Will Maduro, the acting president of Venezuela who is likely to win the next election, throw all this away? In several articles in western media, Maduro has been described as a "deal-maker" who doesn't have the ideological hang-ups of Chavez. Again, they have been economical with the truth. As foreign minister of Venezuela for six years, Maduro worked to delink Venezuela from the US, building stronger ties with Russia and China. Also, he has been the architect of some of the most radical social programmes in Venezuela. Moreover, the new leader of Venezuela just can't afford to ignore the message from the streets: the majority with votes want more of Chavismo, not less of it. For the first time in centuries, the poor feel empowered and they won't want any change in policy. That's why even if Capriles comes to power, he won't be able to roll back most of Chavez's policies.

And most South American nations - Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and others - now share Chavez's view of development. In Brazil, the most businessfriendly country in the region, the government has introduced upto 50 per cent reservation in education for the poor and people of African and indigenous origins. In Ecuador, just two weeks back, Rafael Correa again won the presidential election on the platform of a "Citizen's Revolution".

Chavismo as a philosophy has been internalised by the left-leaning governments of Latin America. Shaking it off is not easy. Nor is it on Nicoals Maduro's agenda.

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