It is a common error in politics to under-estimate your adversary.
Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption.
But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.
Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s — another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book.
Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong chavismo for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end.
To see why, just look back to last October. Then Chávez convincingly won a presidential election, even though he was plainly very ill and his country was suffering high inflation, growing shortages, and a terrifying rise in homicide and violence. Almost anywhere else, such conditions would have led to a massive electoral loss.
That it did not cannot solely be blamed on unfair electoral conditions that penalised the opposition. Because the resilience of chavismo does not lie in its vaporous ideology, nor in its ability to govern, but rather in Chávez’s genuine political genius, and his redistribution of Venezuela’s immense oil wealth.
Chávez, as former Salvadorean guerrilla Joaquin Villalobos has observed, brought social inclusion to Venezuela’s poor, generated opportunities for self-advancement and self-enrichment among new elites (the “boligarchs” of his self-styled Bolivarian revolution), and gave both these sectors political status and power. They will not surrender them easily.
It therefore seems wrong to over-estimate the struggle for power within Chávez’s Venezuelan Socialist Party that may ensue now that the transition from his rule properly begins. Opposition unity is even more fragile. Nor is the opposition likely to be joined by the military: many high-ranking figures have profited immensely from chavismo.
At best, the army will oscillate between indifference and tacit support for a regime that has benefited them. The “Bolivarian Revolution” will be no more. But chavismo is here for many years to come.
According to the constitution, elections will now be called within 30 days.
Buttressed by a sympathy vote, the government candidate — Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president and Chávez’s appointed successor — will most likely win by a significant margin. Polls already suggest as much. Some middle-class Venezuelans may even vote out of fear for what might happen were the government to lose.
For the opposition, that should be no reason for despair. The Venezuelan economy still has some wiggle room — but not much, as oil production has slumped in recent years — and the problems that Chávez has bequeathed his successor are legion.
For a while, Maduro, as the new president, will be able to coast on residual feelings for Chávez and his revolution. But in time those feelings will pass, even his most ardent supporters will stop mourning, and then they will wake up.
What will they see? A Socialist party that remains the strongest political force in the country.
But also inefficiency, mismanagement and a government that lacks both the surplus petro-dollars and the charisma of its progenitor that once sustained it. That is when the final reckoning of chavismo may come.