In Hugo Chávez’s Heartland, the Dead President Rules Supreme

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JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images

Venezuelan acting president Nicolas Maduro and state governor Adán Chávez receive military honors before heading for a campaign rally in the state of Barinas, Venezuela on March 30, 2013, ahead of the presidential election on April 14.

Under the sweltering sun of Venezuela’s Los Llanos, a vast savannah famous for its cowboys and revolutionaries, 60-year-old Adán Chávez speaks passionately to a crowd of red-clad supporters. In his voice and rhetoric trembles a hint of his recently deceased younger brother, Hugo Chávez, the country’s former president. Indeed, a poster above the 60-year-old proclaims that he “is Chávez.” Adán, a bespectacled former physics professor, is the governor of Barinas, the state in which he and his five brothers, including Hugo, were raised. The siblings famously grew up in poverty, raised by their grandmother in a mud hut shaded by palm fronds.

Now the family’s grip on Barinas is just a microcosm of Chávez’s larger, profound hold over the nation as a whole. Adán — the “Marxist in the family,” Hugo once quipped — took over the governorship from his father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, in 2008 after time as Education Minister and Ambassador to Cuba. Another brother, Argenis Chávez, 54 was secretary of state for Barinas under his father and is now President of the National Electricity Corporation. Adelis Chávez is the Vice President of Banco Sofitasa which handles the state government’s finances. Aníbal Chávez was mayor of Sabaneta, the town in Barinas in which the Chávez family were born. Narciso Chávez, 57, oversees government programs between Cuba and Venezuela. On top of that, Hugo’s cousin Asdrúbal Chávez is Vice President of state oil company PDVSA and his son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, 39 is the country’s Vice President.

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“They’re not in power because they’re competent leaders!” said 66-year-old José López, a retired oil worker in Barinas’ main plaza Tuesday, watching friends play dominoes. “Chávez’s family was once — once! — poor. Now they have enormous riches. No one knows how they earned all this money.” Jose Luis Machin Manchin has the unenviable task of leading the opposition campaign in Barinas in time for Sunday’s election which pitches Nicolás Maduro, 50, Chávez’s chosen heir, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 40-year-old state governor of Miranda who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential election. “We’re governed by one family,” Manchin says in his Barinas office. “The family has extraordinary power here. It’s nepotism.”

Despite Chávez’s death from cancer last month, El Comandante continues to dominate the intense election campaign. Maduro has said the name of his former boss more than 7,000 times on state television since his death, according to a website——that has been keeping count. The invocations have hit religious highs: Maduro described Chávez as the “prophet of Christ on Earth,” adding that he may have nudged Jesus into choosing the first Latin American Pope. They have also entered into realms of the surreal. Maduro last week invoked a 16th century curse on those that did not vote for him. Making the sounds of a bird flapping its wings and imitating its call, Maduro days earlier said that Chávez appeared to him as a bird. “It sang and I responded with a song and the bird took flight, circled around once and then flew away,” he said on state television. “I felt the spirit and blessings of Comandante Chávez.”

Chávez also casts a long shadow over Capriles’ campaign, which even took on the title “Comando Simón Bolívar” after the 19th century South American liberator idolized by none other than Chávez. After 14 years of demagogic rule, all politics in Venezuela hinge on Chávez’s legacy. “Nicolás, you are not Chávez,” Capriles repeats, blaming “Nicolás” for the country’s problems. It is a smart tactic, shifting focus from Maduro’s insistence that he is the “son of Chávez.” But Capriles’ policies also echo those of the populist socialist. When Maduro promised to raise the country’s minimum wage earlier this week, Capriles vowed a similar rise rather than attack the government’s unsustainable use of oil resources and failure to address some of the country’s systemic macro-economic problems.

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Still, Capriles’ campaign appears to be having some impact in cleaving a gap between Chávez and Maduro. In Barinas’ main square, José Vicente Rangel, a 66-year-old teacher, said he has always been and always will be a Chavista. But “I’m going to vote for Capriles … Maduro doesn’t know the people, doesn’t know Venezuela,” he says Standing next to Rangel, Ángel Sánchez, a 60-year-old farmer, said he would vote for Chávez if he were alive but will be voting for Capriles on Sunday. “Chávez understood this country. He was a tremendous political force. Maduro isn’t smart enough to govern this country.”

Maduro is still the favorite to win. However, with the economy in tatters — “There’s nothing in the supermarkets, flour, sugar, oil,” says Sánchez — Maduro will face a tough battle over the next few months. The roots of most of the country’s economic problems are currency controls which have pushed the black market rate for the dollar to three and a half times the official rate. The severe shortage of greenbacks looks only to get worse. “In six months, Maduro is going to be in trouble because he is very different to Chávez,” said Caracas-pollster Luis Vicente León. “He is not Chávez. He cannot ask people to wait.” Vicente also added that Maduro has “a lot of enemies,” even within the Chavista camp. Heavyweights like Diosdado Cabello, a military leader and head of the country’s National Assembly, have kept quiet up until now, keen to help preserve Chavismo. However, they are seen as political threats to Maduro in the coming months.

Back in Barinas, many remember the young Chávez. Sabaneta, where Chávez was born, is an hour’s drive from the state capital through maize and sugar cane fields. It was in Sabaneta that Chávez grew up in the house of his grandmother. Opposite that house lived Flor Figueredo, now 67. She remembers the young Chávez running around the dirt streets. “Maduro isn’t Chávez but with the help of the people, he’ll continue the Revolution,” she says with tears in her eyes. “It’ll be at least 100 years until a person like Hugo Chávez returns.” Figueredo hopes to see the Chávez family continue to govern in Venezuela. Of his four children, daughters María Gabriela Chávez, 33, and Rosa Virginia Chávez, 34, were often seen at his side, filling in as a First Lady. “In 2019,” says  Figueredo, referring to the country’s next scheduled election, “we’ll vote for Maria Gabriela Chávez because she’ll continue her father’s legacy.”

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