Nicolas Maduro is Setting Himself Up to Fail in Venezuela

On Monday, March 18, Reuters reported that current interim President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro holds a 14-point lead in the polls over challenger Henrique Capriles in Venezuela’s upcoming April 14 presidential election. In order to capitalize on his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez’s immense popularity, Maduro has aggressively sought to represent himself as not only Chávez’s successor, but as a carbon copy of Chávez. For example, Maduro has taken to wearing Chávez’s trademark nationalist jumpsuit, and has proclaimed, at different times, "I am Chávez" and "I am the son of Chávez."

However, Maduro may come to regret how tightly this symbolic rhetoric will tie him to the looming economic consequences of Chávez’s policies. By casting himself as a clone of Chávez instead of a discrete political player, Maduro is setting himself up to bear the responsibility for Venezuela’s oncoming economic downturn and sluggish recovery, and is also limiting his ability to respond to them effectively.

Venezuela looks to be on the brink of difficult economic times. Chávez’s decision to allocate the lion’s share of Venezuela’s oil revenue toward social programs and welfare did much to reduce the country’s poverty and inequality. However, it also led to limited investment in oil and manufacturing industries — and what investment did occur was mostly wasted through corruption and inefficiencies, as Reuters reported in 2012. The economic effects of these policies are starting to show. A BBC report earlier this month noted that Venezuela has experienced the lowest GDP per capita growth in Latin America over the past decade, with the World Bank predicting a mere 1.8% growth rate for the Venezuelan economy in 2013. Furthermore, Venezuela’s 20.9% inflation rate is one of the world’s highest, second only to Argentina’s in Latin America.

By maintaining some distance from Chávez throughout the campaign, Maduro could have avoided taking the all of the political blame for Venezuela’s upcoming economic struggles. Simply being the candidate from Chávez’s party would likely have been enough to win Maduro the presidency comfortably. In explicitly aligning himself with all aspects of Chávez, Maduro is relinquishing any sort of political defense when the tide inevitably turns against the economic policies of chavismo — and however hard he tries, Maduro will never possess Chávez’s heroism and political infallibility in the eyes of the Venezuelan electorate.

Maduro’s rhetoric will also constrain his ability to respond to the aforementioned economic issues. He can increase investment in industry, as his predecessor should have done, but he can hardly cut social programs to pay for it — after his words during the campaign, it would effectively be political suicide for Maduro to fiddle with Chávez’s main political initiative. Maduro will find himself with a choice between continuing Chávez’s shortsighted economic policies and adding to Venezuela’s rapidly ballooning budget deficit, which was at 17.5% of GDP in 2012.

Transitioning away from charismatic, entrenched leaders tends to be a messy process (see the cases of Juan Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil), but Maduro’s attempt to avoid the transition altogether is politically shortsighted and could cost him down the road. Although it will not happen in 2013, it would not be a surprise to see a President Henrique Capriles six years in the future.