By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda
Caracas, Nov 9 (EFE).- His memorable phrases from hundreds of colorful speeches, his image on walls, billboards and posters, his omnipresent eyes.
Hugo Chavez, a charismatic politician who was Venezuela’s president for 14 years, died eight years ago of cancer. But his political heirs are still leaning on the figure of that leftist-populist leader to connect with voters ahead of this month’s regional and municipal elections.
A fiery man of the people who was an unapologetic socialist and anti-imperialist, Chavez (1954-2013) remains a beloved icon in low-income areas that are home to most of the population and also the places most affected by a longstanding, pandemic-exacerbated economic crisis.
Though a polarizing figure viewed by his political enemies as a dictator who destroyed an oil-rich, once-prosperous country, Chavez’s popularity exceeds that of any current politician and his image and legacy are being thrust to the forefront ahead of the Nov. 21 balloting.
“Chavez is the best thing Chavismo (the leftist movement he spawned) has going for it” in terms of winning over voters, Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, CEO of political consulting firm DataStrategia and professor of political communications at Spain’s University of Navarra, told Efe.
“He was a very important leader, extremely charismatic and a leader that most of the country followed. It was like that for many years, and since his death – given that we can’t speak ill of the dead – Chavismo has grown,” she said.
She noted that 56 percent of respondents in a recent survey said that leftist-led Venezuela, a country hard-hit by United States-imposed sanctions that has been in recession for eight years and suffered hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods, would be better off if Chavez were still alive.
“Chavez’s numbers today are substantially better than the numbers” the heirs of his legacy have, Fernandez said.
Candidates on the campaign trail are therefore appealing to the figure of that mythical leader, the military man who led a failed 1992 coup before being elected president in late 1998 amid widespread popular anger at Venezuela’s traditional political elite.
While few candidates of the ruling leftist PSUV party do not feature Chavez’s eyes in their get-out-the-vote posters and visuals, several candidates have left out the red color associated with their party and all communist and socialist movements.
Fernandez said candidates are making a deliberate choice to distance themselves from the current president, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, whose approval rating has plunged to 15 percent amid the country’s long-running crisis.
The president of Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis, Luis Vicente Leon, echoed her remarks, telling Efe that the late Chavez’s approval rating is more than 50 percent and is still the highest in Venezuela.
Leon compared Chavez to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, saying his untimely death at the age of 58 left him frozen in time.
Maduro, meanwhile, is seen as someone who does not represent Chavez’s legacy and is vulnerable to the emergence of one or more leftist rivals who may compete for his leadership position in the future, he said.
In the lead-up to the Nov. 21 elections, Leon added that some candidates may be “appealing to that legacy of Chavismo” and attempting to avoid association with the Maduro government’s “terribly negative” image. EFE