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THE BIG READ: Hugo's troubled legacy

Andrew Cawthorne | 2013-04-22 00:06:40.0
Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles face off with riot policemen in Caracas. Even more than a recount of votes, most Venezuelans want safer and more prosperous lives
Image by: TOMAS BRAVO/REUTERS

About the only tranquil place in Caracas over the past week has been a hill-top military museum housing the remains of Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez. Visitors tiptoe around his marble sarcophagus, reprimanded by guards if their voices rise above a whisper.

Outside, a shell-shocked nation is still reeling from both Chavez's death last month and a week of violence and recriminations about the election to succeed him.

Nightly protests - government supporters launch fireworks, opponents bang pots and pans - have been shaking most major cities in this nation of 29million.

The beginning of Venezuela's transition into the post-Chavez era could hardly have been more raucous or controversial.

The dispute over the narrow win of Chavez protege Nicolas Maduro in the presidential vote has led to the deaths of at least eight people.

It has also deepened the near 50-50 split in a nation polarised by Chavez's socialist policies, shown the fragility of Maduro's grip on the "Chavismo" movement, and left a raft of fast-accruing economic and social problems on the back burner.

"If we're at war among ourselves, everyone suffers," said construction worker Elias Simancas, 61.

"We just want a country in peace," he said, expressing an oft-repeated sentiment of the less vocal majority on both sides of the political conflict.

As well as longing for some quiet and normality after 14 years in the global spotlight under Chavez, Venezuelans want plenty of tangible things on their street corners.

First on their wish list is an end to murders, kidnappings and violent robberies. Beyond that, they want an end to runaway price rises, shortages of basic products, power cuts, potholes, and the insulting rhetoric exchanged by politically divided neighbours and families.

Many Venezuelans are deeply frustrated that their Opec nation is not doing better economically despite being rich in natural resources, from abundant rivers for hydropower to the world's biggest oil reserves.

"I'm sick of it. I want out. How can I bring up kids in this country?" said Manuel Pereira, 39, whose electronics importing company collapsed because of government foreign currency controls.

But ideological disputes, not grassroots issues, dominate the headlines and dominate government and opposition agendas.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles's decision to contest Maduro's election victory - he won by less than 2%, or 265000 of about 15million votes - uncorked passions and resentments built up during Chavez's rule.

Capriles has publicly distanced himself from the bloodshed, and the election board's agreement to audit the poll result has helped take some heat out of the situation. But in the longer term the political standoff is unresolved.

Though safely sworn in, endorsed by his peers elsewhere in South America and unlikely to see his win overturned by the audit, Maduro - clearly lacking the charisma and iron grip of his mentor - might struggle to keep the ruling Socialist Party together, given its competing interests and factions, ranging from socialist ideologues to military chiefs and businessmen.

Furthermore, almost half of Venezuelans voted against him and question his legitimacy. Capriles' surprisingly strong showing has cemented his standing as the undisputed opposition flag-bearer.

But he faces the possibility of legal charges in connection with the violence, and a move to debar him from the governorship of Miranda state, where he is serving a second four-year term.

"They should get rid of him and find a proper democrat to run the opposition," said Andrea Lopez, a government supporter in Caracas's biggest slum, Petare. He said Capriles should be put behind bars for the week's events.

But Capriles will probably try to consolidate his image as Venezuela's president-in-waiting.

"This is unfolding chapter by chapter," he said. "The whole system is collapsing." - Reuters

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