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Analysis: Chavistas begin search for Latin America's next 'Comandante'

By Carlos Rajo, Commentator, Telemundo

News analysis

Love him or hate him — and plenty of people in Venezuela and around the world felt one of the two emotions — firebrand President Hugo Chavez’s brand of leadership will be hard to replace.

Chavez died Tuesday at age 58, after a long battle with cancer that was shrouded in mystery and prevented him from being inaugurated for a fourth term.

Chavez, a self-declared socialist, often criticized the United States on its history of intervention in the Americas and Washington's stance on countries such as Iran.

In a 2006 address at the U.N. General Assembly, Chavez called President George W. Bush "the devil."

"The hegemonistic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very existence of the human species," he said during the speech.

Such declarations gave voice to many wishing to shake-off perceived American dominance of Latin America.  His habit of using Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to help prop-up governments in the name of the "Bolivarian Revolution" — named after Simon Bolivar who led 19th-century movements to end Spain’s colonial rule throughout Latin America — won him many friends.

He also supported cooperation among Latin American nations, and helped establish the Union of South American Nations, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas and the Bank of the South.

Nobody in power in the Americas has Chavez’s charisma or power to galvanize millions. More importantly, no other leader — even the ones that share his ideas like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner — has the resources and influence of a country such as Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

So while many Chavistas are saying "Long live to the King," it is not clear how long the king’s project will survive internationally. The same is the case within Venezuela, but more so.

According to Venezuela’s constitution, an election will need to be called within 30 days of Chavez’s death. Who the Chavistas choose to succeed "El Comandante" will help determine the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.

If Chavez’ will carries beyond the grave, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will be the candidate in the upcoming election. It isn’t only that the 50-year-old former Caracas bus driver and union organizer was appointed by Chavez as his successor, but also that he represents the closest thing to 'Chavismo' without Chavez. 

Preferred candidate

Maduro lacks Chavez’s charisma and popular appeal. At the same time, Maduro accepts all the tenants of Bolivarian socialism – a mix of authoritarianism, state owned enterprises and anti-U.S. rhetoric functioning under some form of democratic governance.

It is no coincidence that Maduro is the preferred candidate of Cuba, Chavez’s closest ally and supporter.

Maduro’s main opposition within his sphere is Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and currently the President of the National Assembly. Cabello is as wooden publicly as Maduro, but he has the support of another major player in Venezuelan politics and Chavismo itself — the army.

The men in uniform may decide that it is time for a change of regime and not just a change in leader.  Under their influence, there could be a rapprochement with the business sector and thawing in relations with United States. 

Nevertheless, whoever ends up being the Chavistas’ candidate, and assuming he wins the election, the project may still be in danger: Venezuela is still dogged by inflation rates of between 5 and 30 percent a year, a large government deficit, alarming rates of urban violence, shortages in many goods and services, such as electricity, milk, meat and toilet paper. 

So even if the military accepts a Maduro presidency, it isn’t a given that they will support civilian leader to whom they see as too leftist and too close to the Cubans indefinitely. It is also possible that there will be infighting among the Chavistas’ civilian groups, both the politicians who are in charge of the state machinery and the "boligarchs," the moguls who have profited immensely with Chavez in power. 

The reaction of the Chavista popular bases is another potential problem. El Comandante won’t be there to convince them to wait for better times, to accept the shortages, inflation, insecurity and other realities of a dysfunctional and inefficient government.

But equally important, these sectors could become a threat to Chavez’s successor as many are more radical than their leaders...and some are armed.

Telemundo is NBC News' Spanish-language partner.

Related:

Venezuela's 'Comandante' Hugo Chavez dies

World leaders pay tribute to Hugo Chavez

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