The death of Hugo Chavez leaves a gaping hole in Venezuelan politics. During his 14 years as president, Chavez dominated virtually every aspect of political life. Through lavish social spending financed by the high price of oil (Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world), and through the sheer force of his charismatic personality, Chavez assembled a loyal base of supporters among those who received not only concrete material and political benefits but also something more ephemeral -- dignity. At the same time, and abetted by the fragmentation and, at times, abstentionism of the opposition, Chavez buttressed his dominance through the gutting of institutions such as the judiciary that provide checks and balances against unfettered executive power. He ensured the loyalty of the armed forces through successive purges and likewise stacked the state oil company, PdVSA, with loyalists following a failed strike in 2002.
Chavez's designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, will face significant challenges in keeping together the disparate elements of the Chavez coalition, especially at a time of mounting economic difficulties and increases in Venezuela's already astronomical levels of crime and violence. His campaign has been based exclusively on the invocation of Chavez's legacy and spirit, but he will need to develop his own connection to the Chavista base in order to maintain its active loyalty. As a civilian, Maduro will have a harder time consolidating his legitimacy with the military than his chief political rival, National Assembly president and former officer Diosdado Cabello. Finally, without further investment to boost oil production, the distortions of Venezuela's petro-export economy will only deepen. Chavismo will continue, and most likely radicalize, in the face of such challenges.