What will happen to Venezuela after Hugo Chavez’ death?

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” said Georges Clemenceau, prime minster of France during the First World War

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” said Georges Clemenceau, prime minster of France during the First World War, and promptly died to prove his point. He was duly replaced, and France was just fine without him. Same goes for Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.

‘Comandante Presidente’ Chavez’s death March 5 came as no surprise. He was clearly coming home to die when he returned from his last bout of surgery in Cuba in December and since then everybody in politics in Venezuela has been pondering their post-Chavez strategies. But none of them really knows what will happen in the election that will be held by the end of April, let alone what happens afterward.

Venezuela never stopped being a democracy despite 14 years of Chavez’s rule. He was elected president four times, the first three with increasing majorities, but the last time, in 2012, he fell back sharply, only defeating his rival by 54 per cent to 44.

That is not a wide enough margin to guarantee that his appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, will win the next election. If his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were to lose that election, it would not be a tragedy.

Chavez was an unnecessarily polarizing politician and a truly awful administrator but he has actually achieved what he went into politics for. Twenty years ago Venezuelan politics was a corrupt game fought out between two factions of a narrow elite. Now the task of using the country’s oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor majority is central to all political debate in the country.

In last year’s election, the Venezuelan opposition parties united behind a presidential candidate, Enrique Capriles, whose political platform was basically ‘Chavismo’ without the demagoguery. In previous elections, the opposition had railed against Chavez’s ‘socialism,’ and lost by a wide margin. Capriles promised to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies and lost very narrowly.

Venezuela today has the fairest distribution of wealth in the Americas, with the obvious exception of Canada. Venezuela’s ‘Gini co-efficient,’ which measures the wealth gap between the rich and the poor, is 0.39, whereas the United States is 0.45 and Brazil, even after 10 years of reforming left-wing governments, is still 0.52. (A lower score means less inequality of income. Canada’s score, for the record, is 0.32.)

For all of Chavez’s ranting about class struggle and his admiration for Cuba’s Fidel Castro, this was not achieved in Venezuela by taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. It was accomplished by spending the oil revenue differently. He changed the political psychology of the country, and it now has the potential to be a Saudi Arabia with democracy.

That is not a bad thing to be, and the Venezuelan opposition has finally grasped that fact. It remains for Chavez’s own party to understand that it has actually won the war. A spell in opposition might help it to come to terms with its proper role in the new Venezuelan political consensus: no longer an embattled ‘revolutionary’ movement, but the more radical alternative in a more or less egalitarian democracy.

This will be hard for the PSUV to do, because the people around Chavez are still addicted to the rhetoric of ‘struggle’ against the forces of evil that they see on every side. But the journey has begun, and it will probably get there in the end.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.