Wait until mourning

"Let me show you how it's done, sweetie."

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. So goes the saying.

For politicians, a corollary is in order: use the corpse to secure power.

The resounding triumph of Cristina Kirchner in Argentina yesterday got me thinking of Venezuela’s possible (and probable?) transition.

A few years ago, Cristina was toast. Deeply unpopular, out of touch with her country’s vast middle class, she was seen as a haughty usurper, a woman more worried about ideology and expensive accessories than about connecting with the voters. But then … Néstor died.

She wrapped herself in black, the improving world economy worked its magic, and … voila! Voters have rewarded her with practically unfettered power.

How an electorate will interpret death is completely unpredictable. For every Kirchner, there is a Wellstone.

A few days before election day, US Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. A brief period of mourning was followed by widespread outrage at Democrats grovelling at political brownie points by turning his funeral into a rally. Mild-mannered Minnesota voters were not amused, and they went with his Republican contender instead.

There is a lot we don’t know about Hugo Chávez’s medical condition, but there is a real possibility that the President is very, very sick. In fact, he may not be around in time for the election. Investment banks have already started factoring this into their equations.

If that is the case, and that is a huge if, we know what the government’s strategy is: deny, deny, deny, until they can deny no more.

Hugo Chávez has said that he is cured. Cancer-free. Clean as a whistle. We don’t really believe it, but we don’t have much more to go on.

If he is, in fact, dying, then at some point they will announce that the cancer has come back, and that it was terrible luck. The transition will have then begun in earnest, at the moment of their choosing. In a matter of weeks we will see Chávez say he gladly consumes himself for his people and his revolution, and he will annoint his successor.

The chances of success of this strategy depend on two factors: the transition’s willingness to appeal to strong-arm tactics to remain in power, and the level of schmaltz they play this with.

If they go down the schmaltz route, their strategy will be to try and make voters connect with the heir apparent and his or her grief. But to pull that off, you need someone who is personally connected to the deceased, someone with whose loss everyone can identify with.

Can we really see Nicolás Maduro benefitting from the shock and grief that would come? Or will the stoic Adán Chávez mourn his little brother all the way to Miraflores?

Or, perhaps, do the sages in Havanna have something else in mind? Are they thinking of a feminine figure, one that does not carry a lot of baggage, one that is deeply involved with the President’s persona, one who would actually be the direct heiress to the Chavista legacy … could that be what’s in the cards?

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