Hugo Chávez died today at the age of 58. While many of his obituaries will focus on his voluminous political legacy, the day-to-day issues he leaves behind are enormously complex. Eventually, they are sure to overshadow any historical discussion about the man.
Politically, his movement is orphaned. Chávez was not only president of Venezuela, he was also president of his party, commanding every detail—from which candidates ran where to which judges had to be fired. His tenuous political coalition—made up of community leaders, the military, old-style communists and entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck—was only held together by the sheer force of the president’s charisma, which punished dissent swiftly and mercilessly. With Chávez gone, it’s not clear who will make the decisions, or who will keep the tensions among these factions at bay.
Economically, the Chávez legacy is horrendous. The Venezuelan economy consists of a series of distortions piled upon further distortions. Price controls, labor rigidities, foreign exchange controls, clogged ports, and crumbling highways are the norm in Venezuela. Together with a rapacious public sector, a crippling budget deficit, and an underperforming banking sector, the Venezuelan economy is a veritable ticking time bomb held up only by sky-high oil prices that, amazingly, are not enough to sustain the ever-growing chavista State. And while poverty has fallen thanks to massive government spending, this cannot survive a slight dip in oil prices.
In addition, Venezuelans are suffering from one of the worst crime waves any nation not engaged in civil war has ever seen. The government seemingly has no clue on how to tackle the problem. As program after program fails, the government blames the media—or some fictional capitalist culture.
Venezuelans have been in suspended animation ever since December, when the president—in his last public appearance—announced he was going back to Cuba for treatment and named his successor. Ever since that day, life in Venezuela has been a swirl of rumors, indecision and surreal policy-making that even saw the Supreme Court decide that Chávez didn’t have to be sworn in, as the Venezuelan constitution mandates.
Now, that is in the past. A glorious funeral will ensue, and Nicolás Maduro may very well ride the public’s outpouring to an election win. But soon, he will have to come to terms with a political system that has stopped working, and with an economy in tatters.
Congratulations on your inheritance, Mr. Maduro.