The March 5 announcement of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death confirms that the post-Chavez era of politics began when the president underwent surgery on Dec. 11, 2012. Chavez has been a pivotal and polarizing figure in Venezuelan politics, and his leadership changed forever the way Venezuelans will view the government.
Though the details of how the political succession will take place are unclear, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will almost certainly replace Chavez. Legally, there is some uncertainty about whether National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, whose close relationship with certain elements of the military has put him in a position of considerable influence, will preside over the country ahead of snap elections. The political opposition in Venezuela is disorganized and fractious, and as such it has little chance of winning an election at this point. Differences exist within the chavista camp, but as Chavez's chosen successor, Maduro has enough credibility to make it difficult for anyone to challenge him at the polls.
The next president, whoever he is, cannot afford to abandon the redistribution and community-oriented policies that Chavez pioneered. However, there are very serious challenges that he must tackle in order achieve success. Crime runs rampant, as does inflation, and both issues must be addressed because they affect all Venezuelans.
The solutions to these problems are not easy. But in addition to resolving these problems, Maduro — indeed, any of the potential chavista successors — will have to replace a singularly influential and charismatic leader. Chavez's time-tested policy of undermining possible rivals has also left him without a strong successor. Without Chavez's political gift of persuasion and faction management, Maduro will have to be highly effective in addressing the key underlying political and economic questions facing the country. As a result, he is likely to be a more pragmatic leader, focused on impact more than image.
Notably, the March 5 decision to expel two U.S. Embassy employees and to blame the United States for Chavez's sickness seems to indicate that Maduro plans to fall back on blaming the United States for domestic challenges in order to strengthen his position. However he decides to govern, Maduro will need to prove himself quickly once he steps into office. He will have to balance the need for more foreign investment with the need to generate public confidence that he is a strong and capable leader.