Opinion

Op-Ed: Rough road ahead for Venezuela

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Opinion,Op-Eds

There is no exaggerating Venezuela's political and social turmoil as the country faces fresh presidential elections on April 14. With rampant rumor filling a near total information vacuum, unrest has grown among all Venezuelans -- supporters and opponents of dictator-president Hugo Chavez -- since he departed Dec. 10 on his terminal trip to Cuba.

Confusion has morphed into insecurity in the two weeks since his death was announced, owing largely to the shortcomings of acting President Nicolas Maduro.

Appointed vice president by Chavez shortly after October's election, Maduro has been de facto president since his mentor, then possibly already deceased, failed to attend Jan. 10 inauguration ceremonies. Bumbling by Maduro and his government has been monumental -- first, in their absurd efforts to hide Chavez' condition, and later in allowing protocol blunders that reportedly caused the Argentine and Brazilian presidents to leave Caracas before the funeral.

Maduro's acts in office are not limited to the stupid. He ignored the constitution twice in two weeks -- first superseding National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello as acting president, then failing to hold presidential elections within 30 days of the office becoming vacant. He set them, inexplicably, for 40 days after the announcement instead. This would be less important except that multiple sources contend Chavez actually died Dec. 28, with no announcement for two months.

Despite rampant confusion, disgust and insecurity, one thing is clear: In order to elect Maduro against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who garnered 45 percent of the vote against Chavez in October, the Chavistas will have to make far greater illegal efforts this time.

Maduro is a former bus driver and union member who has never been elected to office. The former foreign minister has little formal education and limited professional experience. Openly disliked by many Chavez supporters, he has virtually no popular following: Last Friday in Catia, considered Chavista country, hundreds of citizens drowned out his speech in a fusillade of hoots and banging pots.

If elected, Maduro will face severely deteriorated economic conditions. Venezuelan government debt ballooned from $24 billion when Chavez was first elected in 1998 to more than $90 billion today. Following February's 33 percent currency devaluation to 6.3 bolivars to the dollar (the black market exchange rate has soared to 22 bolivars), the current 28 percent inflation rate is sure to surge. The situation is unimaginable in a country boasting one of the world's largest oil reserves.

If elected, Capriles would face a similar set of challenges, but he has the advantage of not carrying the Chavistas' corrupt and bloated bureaucratic baggage. He also comes with executive experience as governor of Miranda state, which includes much of metropolitan Caracas.

A dynamic 40-year-old lawyer, Capriles was undefeated in four mayoral and gubernatorial elections -- in the process defeating two previous Chavez vice presidents -- before he lost to Chavez himself. His 12 years as a government executive were solid, substantial and scandal-free.

Many felt that Capriles' embrace of liberal policies in October's presidential contest -- promising to continue Chavez's broad social programs and deeply discounted, 100,000-barrel daily oil shipments to Cuba -- was necessary when competing against Chavez. This time he is taking stronger stands, directly attacking Maduro and forcefully targeting Cuba's pervasive involvement in Venezuelan affairs. As in October, he will visit every Venezuelan state in just four weeks.

At this point, the election is too close to call. A weak Maduro has advantages of incumbency, a strong (if fractious) organization and a possible Chavez sympathy vote. Capriles has his executive record, a strong campaign persona and a well-organized opposition. Venezuelans have a clear choice on April 14.

Geopolitical analyst and former diplomat John R. Thomson focuses on the developing world. Former Venezuelan career Ambassador Norman Pino De Lion is a frequent contributor to leading Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

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