By R. Viswanathan (*) - The election of Nicolas Maduro, the chosen heir of Chavez, in last Sunday’s election, is good news for the peaceful and orderly transition of Venezuela after the abnormal, autocratic and quixotic rule of Chavez in the last fourteen years. If Capriles had won, the change would have been abrupt and traumatic for the Chavistas who might not have given up power so easily without some messy fight.
Maduro's victory has given extra time for the country to decide its new course in the post-Chavez period. If Maduro follows the pro-poor policies of Chavez in a moderate and pragmatic manner (without the confrontational and extreme method of Chavez) and combines them with business-friendly policies (as Lula da Silva did in Brazil) there is new hope for Venezuela.
Venezuela is blessed with one of the largest petroleum reserves, large mineral and water resources as well as a pleasant climate and small homogeneous population of just 28 million without any ethnical, linguistic, religious issues. Venezuela has the potential to be one of the prosperous countries of the world with an ordinary and sensible Maduro rather than an extraordinary prophet cum caudillo like Chavez.
Chavez raised the hope of millions of poor Venezuelans after the corrupt regime of his predecessors who had plundered the country and left poverty. He started off with good intentions and policies but later succumbed to megalomaniac temptations. While he has distributed some of the oil wealth to the poor people, he has left the country in a worse shape than what it was when he came to power in 1998. Inflation, power shortage, scarcity of essential items, falling oil production and a corrupt system of controls on foreign exchange and imports are some of his legacies. He has brutally damaged the political, economic and social institutions of the country. Caracas, which was a peaceful city in 1998, has become the only city in Latin America where even diplomats feel unsafe because of the rampant crime and kidnappings.
If Maduro does not deliver, Capriles will come to power in his third attempt next time (Lula da Silva also lost several times before winning). Capriles, just 40 in age, has time on his hands. Henrique Capriles could be a reformist President, like Enrique Nieto of Mexico, who has renewed the hope for Mexico. Capriles could get inspiration from Nieto's PRI party which has made a come back after having been out of power for twelve years and learning the right lessons.
In any case, Maduro will be a less-polarizing political leader with a weaker political base. He is not an ideological fanatic like Chavez, who wanted to change Venezuela and Latin America upside down and who was rooting for daily battles against anyone who did not agree with him. Maduro's authority will be challenged both from within Chavismo and outside. Diosdado Cabello, the rival of Maduro has the support of the military and is waiting to take the place of Maduro. The opposition party, encouraged by the closest finish in this election, will challenge Maduro's administration all the way.
With these constraints, Maduro is likely to be a moderate leader and be less antagonistic towards business and allow more space for the private sector to grow. He could make the political course correction by being respectful of the middle class and businessmen who were the target of insults and abuse by Chavez.
Maduro will not interfere in the affairs of other Latin American countries as Chavez did so brazenly. Nor will he squander the oil wealth in freebies to other countries as Chavez did so extravagantly. The Colombians would be happy with Maduro while FARC has lost a crucial support after Chavez.
Maduro will, however, continue to be loyal to the Castro brothers, who had played a role in his designation as the heir of Chavez. But he will not be able to be over generous to Cuba as Chavez was. Maduro will continue the anti-American rhetoric but in a much less confrontational way. He will not go out of his way to needle the Americans as Chavez did.
Maduro will be a faithful friend of Brazil and especially Lula da Silva, who had openly campaigned for him. Brazil's economic and commercial interests in Venezuela will be safe and continue to grow.
Maduro will fit Venezuela in Mercosur without politicizing it as Chavez tried. A sober and moderate Venezuela will add to the strength of Mercosur, which will become a global power house of agriculture and energy.
All this is good news for Venezuelan democracy and the future of the country. It is also good for Latin America as a region which is now free from the polarising influence of Chavez. The moderate left will now consolidate itself and prevail over the extremism preached by Chavez. Lula da Silva’s line of action (pragmatic and balanced pro-poor and pro-market policies) is the indisputable long term trend for Latin America. Certainly not Chavism.
A stable Venezuela and Latin America are good for the world and for India too. Venezuela supplies over 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day and this is equivalent to 10% of India's total crude imports. Indian companies have billions of dollars of investment plans in the Venezuelan oil sector. Chavez sought a political price from India for giving oil fields to India. This made the Indian political leadership cautious since they were uncomfortable with his all-out anti-American tirade. But India need not have any such hesitations about Maduro, a devoted Sai Baba follower.
(*) R. Viswanathan is a former Indian ambassador in Argentina and an expert in Latinamerican affairs