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Professor reflects on Chavez’s death

John Cameron | Thursday, March 7, 2013

The death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday leaves a number of questions for the South American nation, which now adds a presidential election to the list of complex challenges it already faces.

Professor Michael Coppedge, a political science professor specializing in Latin-American politics and global democratization, said the future of the regime – at least in the short term – will be determined by Interim President and Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro.

“A lot of it depends on what Maduro will do now that he’s not in Chavez’s shadow, because he’s been very loyal to Chavez and has hidden his own tendencies to demonstrate absolute loyalty,” Coppedge said. “Now that he doesn’t have to do that, we’ll see what kind of person he is. I expect he’s not a liberal democrat, but whether he’ll be more open [to opposition] … remains to be seen.”

Coppedge said Maduro’s initial statements after the president’s death suggest he intends to keep a short leash on opposition, at least in the weeks leading up to the election.

“There was a subtext that the opposition better behave itself, that this is not a time to cheer or call for radical change, it’s a time to remember our fallen leader,” Coppedge said. “I think there’s a fear the opposition will try to capitalize on the moment.”

The Venezuelan government announced an election will be called within 30 days, and Coppedge said he believes Maduro, the candidate for Chavez’s socialist party, will likely be the winner.

“If I were to place a bet right now, I’d say Maduro will probably win, in part with the election coming so close after the death, he’ll get the vote,” Coppedge said. “A lot of Chavistas are out to prove their movement will not fall apart. … I think they’ll be motivated to campaign hard and win.”

While Maduro is the likely victor, Coppedge believes the opposition could have a substantial presence in the election.

“There are a lot of things for people to be unhappy about, and without Chavez to hold his group together, some of these complaints may lead to divisions,” he said. “Purchasing power has been declining, public services have been declining. … People are not happy with the extremely high crime rate.”

Although the opposition stands to benefit from economic conditions, its most prominent leader does not appear to be mounting a power grab.

“The opposition will probably be behind Henrique Capriles Radonski, but he has exercised some calming leadership,” Coppedge said. “He hasn’t been a polarizing leader and after Chavez’s death he expressed solidarity with Chavez’s family.”

While much is uncertain for the political future of Venezuela, Coppedge said the change in leadership could present new opportunities for the country’s relationship with the United States, which was strained under the Chavez regime.

“The Obama administration can act as though this can be a new opportunity to do things differently,” he said. “Obama’s statement was expressing hope for better democracy and stability in Venezuela, so I think the [United States] is going to be happy to talk and send out feelers to see whether relations can be better.”

The supply of oil from Venezuela to the United States is unlikely to be disrupted during the transition, Coppedge said.

“Venezuela is not in a good economic situation,” he said. “It can’t afford to stop selling oil to the [United States]. It makes economic sense to sell to us because we’re so close and have established relationships.”

If Maduro wins the election, Coppedge said he is doubtful relations will improve.

“I think it depends on whether Maduro, or whoever the president [will be], is going to use the same tactics as Chavez, which is to demonize the [United States] to build support at home,” he said. “I think Maduro is cut from that mold.”