The coffin of Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, was pictured on most Swiss front pages on Thursday. Editorialists say anointed successor Nicolas Maduro has his work cut out.
“The end of the mirage” was the front-page headline of La Liberté in Fribourg, which said Chávez’s “hardly glorious” legacy had only been saved by petroleum dollars. A cartoon showed a mourner in front of Chávez’s coffin waving an aspergillum sprinkling oil instead of holy water.
“Hugo Chávez was neither a dictator nor a Communist leader to be placed in the museum of horrors next to Mao or Stalin. But he had a very narrow idea of democracy,” it said, pointing to an “authoritarian drift” during the leader’s 14 years in power.
The paper added that Chávez had left behind a grim situation: industry was atrophying, inflation was rampant, dollars for imports were scarce amid currency control and residents faced chronic food shortages.
Nevertheless, “the Chávez revolution hasn’t had its final word”, according to Le Temps in Geneva, which devoted its first three pages to the controversial 58-year-old figurehead, who died from cancer on Tuesday.
In an election for a successor, the current vice-president Nicolas Maduro, picked by Chávez himself to lead the country, “appears to have all the cards to make it to the top”, the paper said. It pointed to Maduro’s popular support, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and close ties to Cuba, where he studied.
“The death of Chávez will not be enough to extinguish the Bolivarian Revolution. If it does one day come to an end, it will be under the weight of its own deformities, the sombre reverse side of the undeniable social victories bequeathed by the Comandante [Chávez],” said Le Temps.
With the entire government, including former bus driver Maduro, caught up in the seven-hour funeral procession through Caracas on Wednesday, there were few answers to the most pressing question facing the country: the timing of a presidential election that must be called within a month.
“Maduro is playing with fire” was the headline of an analysis in Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger. “Chávez’s successor will take over a split nation,” it warned.
The main danger for Maduro, it reckoned, was that Chávez’s “unscrupulous” spending policy had left the national budget in such a miserable state that his successor would have no choice but to impose “acts of cruelty” on the nation, one example being last month’s currency devaluation of 32 per cent to 6.30 bolivars per dollar, the fifth devaluation in nine years.
“Popular discontent will not be aimed at Chávez, the person responsible, but at the less charismatic and rhetorically somewhat simple Maduro.”
Chávez’s folksy charisma, anti-US diatribes and oil-financed projects designed to improve life for residents of long-neglected slums created an unusually powerful bond with many poor Venezuelans.
That intense emotional connection underpinned his rule, but critics saw his autocratic style, gleeful nationalisations and often harsh treatment of rivals as hallmarks of a dictator whose misguided policies squandered a historic bonanza of oil revenues.
“Hugo Chávez knew how to seduce people and crowds and get them in his pocket. You just have to look at the pictures of the grief, if not hysteria, of the masses who idolised him,” concluded La Liberté.
“People don’t cry like that for leaders of democracies. Only the death of a Marxist can plunge people into such a state of affliction.”
Like Le Temps, which said Venezuela was entering an “era of uncertainty”, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) highlighted the question of what would happen next.
“The governors of the late president have until now exploited his aura to their advantage. How much longer they will manage to do this remains to be seen,” it said in an editorial.
Opponents already have been stepping up criticism of the government’s moves after Chávez’s death, including naming Maduro as interim president in apparent violation of the constitution, and the military’s eagerness to choose political sides.
The 1999 constitution that Chávez himself pushed through states that the speaker of the National Assembly, in this case Diosdado Cabello, should become interim president if a head of state is forced to leave office within three years of his election. Chávez was re-elected only in October.
Maduro has the advantage, however. “On the one hand he was chosen personally by Chávez as his successor and on the other he can benefit from the sympathy vote. He is also favoured by Cuba, which in Chávez has lost its closest and most loyal ally,” the NZZ said.
“In the coming weeks we’ll see whether the Chávistas can keep their power and sinecures or whether individual claims and longing for power will prevail. At the end of the Chávez era, the deceased president’s successor – whoever it is – faces a massive task. And the country faces a tough new beginning.”