Without Chavez a New Generation of Leaders Emerges in Venezuela

PHOTO: View of a flag during the march of the supporters of President Hugo Chavez through the streets of Caracas to the military academy on March 06, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. With Chavez gone a new generation of leaders must emerge in Venezuela.
Augusto Berroteran/Orinoquiaphoto/LatinContent/Getty Images

With the death of Hugo Chávez, elections to choose his successor are expected to take place in Venezuela within the next month or so. And while many are still mourning the fallen president, some folks are already looking at different scenarios that could play out in this oil-rich nation.

We already know that the next election will pit interim president Nicolas Maduro--Chávez's chosen successor--against Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old state governor who came within 10 percentage points of Chávez in last year's presidential contest.

The two candidates represent different paths for Venezuela: Maduro is seen as a perpetuation of Chávez's policies, while Capriles symbolizes a break from the past.

Polls suggest that Maduro is likely to win, as voting blocks in the country are still split roughly as they were in the 2012 election, with 55 percent of people favoring "chavismo" and 45 percent leaning towards "la oposición."

But no matter who wins the next election, Venezuela's future will be far from calm. High debt levels will put pressure on social programs that had previously secured the people's support for the Chávez government. Economic problems could also create fissures within socialist groups that were previously united by obedience to the charismatic Chávez.

Capriles and Maduro, as well as National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, will certainly play a big role in this drama. But there are some other people to watch out for as Venezuela adjusts to life after Chávez. Think of them as the next generation of politicians and influencers who can make things happen in Venezuela.

PHOTO: Henri Falcon
Henri Falcon @henrifalconlara

A former Chavista who split away from the socialist party in 2010, Falcon is currently the governor of Lara state, and one of just three state governors affiliated with La Oposición. Falcon has pushed for local governments to have more independence from the extremely powerful central government and has attempted to portray himself as a politician who bridges ideological divides. Thanks to his working class background and solid performance so far as governor of Lara State, Falcon may be the opposition's next leading candidate if it turns out Capriles can't win the election.

PHOTO: Hector Rodriguez
Leo Ramirez/AFP/GettyImages
Hector Rodriguez @hectorodriguez

At just 31, Hector Rodriguez is Venezuela's sports minister, and he's also the National Coordinator for Youth for Venezuela's Socialist Party. According to Venezuelan political journalist David Ludovic, he is one of the most promising young chavista politicians, and he's been a "key link" between the Chávez administration and left-wing youth groups across the country over the past couple of years. Rodriguez has led several demonstrations against student groups that oppose Chávez.

PHOTO: Maria Corina Machado
Miguel Gutierrez/AFP/Getty
Maria Corina Machado @MariaCorinaYA

Maria Corina Machado has been an influential figure in Venezuelan politics for the past eight years or so, first as the director of Sumate, an election-monitoring group, and now as a congresswoman. Machado represents the more conservative elements of Venezuela's opposition. She does not have enough support nationwide to be a successful presidential candidate. But Ludovic says she can pressure more moderate elements of the opposition to "not be complacent" with the government on issues like property rights and cleaner procedures for appointing public officers in Venezuela. Machado is also an outspoken critic of plans to organize socialist communes, which she says could undermine local governments.

PHOTO: Eva Golinger
Eva Golinger @evagolinger

Eva Golinger, a prominent lawyer, is basically the nemesis of Maria Corina Machado. Golinger was born in New York to Venezuelan parents. She moved to Venezuela in the 1990s and has led several investigations that claimed that the U.S. government was trying to "destabilize" the country by working with local NGOs, like Sumate, the group led by Machado. Golinger's investigations have prompted the Venezuelan government to make it almost impossible for human rights NGOs in the country to receive foreign funding. She has also served as an editor for a state-run Venezuelan newspaper, and with 159,000 followers on Twitter, is one of the most popular people tweeting about Venezuela in English. The New York Times recently described Golinger as "The American who has the [Venezuelan] president's ear."

PHOTO: Miguel Perez Pirela
Miguel Perez @maperezpirela

Perez grew up in a slum in Maracaibo, yet managed to get a Ph.D. in political philosophy at a prestigious Italian university. Now, Perez hosts a daily talk show called "Cayendo y Corriendo" that is popular with Chavistas. He also runs a website called "La Iguana" that regularly vilifies Venezuela's opposition. His TV show and large following in social media have turned Perez into one of the most popular advocates for the Venezuelan government, even if he holds no political posts.

PHOTO: Pedro Pablo Peñaloza
Pedro Pablo Peñaloza @pppenaloza

Pedro Pablo Peñaloza began his journalism career at Tal Cual, a feisty newspaper led by Venezuelan opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff. Now in his mid thirties, Peñaloza is a well-known political journalist for El Universal--one of Venezuela's biggest papers--and one of the hosts of Alo Ciudadano, the most watched TV talk show among opposition sympathizers. His tweets--in Spanish--can give you a good idea of what opposition people are thinking in Venezuela. His articles also provide good insights on how Venezuelan politics work.

PHOTO: Antonio Ecarri
Antonio Ecarri @aecarri

Antonio Ecarri is a moderate opposition leader who spends a lot of time in poor neighborhoods that are usually a bastion of chavista politicians. In 2010, he lost a congressional race in the ultra-chavista 23 de Enero section of Caracas by just two percentage points. Last year, he lost opposition primaries for the upcoming Caracas mayoral elections by an even smaller margin, so he plans to run for mayor as an independent candidate because he argues that he has greater support in the working class areas of the city than other opposition candidates. Ecarri, who is 38, seems to have an interesting future cut out for him in Venezuelan politics. He is known as an education advocate and has even been given positive coverage on some chavista news outlets. His decision to run for mayor, however, could create fissures within Venezuela's opposition.

PHOTO: Diego Molero
Fernando Llano/AP Photo
Diego Molero

Venezuela's recently appointed Defense Minister will be in charge of maintaining public order as people mourn Chávez in the next few weeks. When new elections are called, he must also lead operations to quell any violence on election day and ensure that no ballot boxes are stolen. But Molero's lack of political neutrality already worries opposition leaders. After Chávez died, Molero described himself as an "apostle of Chávez." He also said that the role of Venezuela´s armed forces was to "promote the Bolivarian and socialist ideology cultivated by the commander president." If voters pick opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, all eyes will be on Molero and his officers.

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