Venezuela is on the edge of a new era. When strongman President Chavez lost his battle with cancer in early March, he left behind uncertainty, fear and division. During 14 years in power, Chavez built an army of ardent supporters. But there are many other Venezuelans who see the president's death as a chance to change their country, to end the tight government control of everyday life. Our reporters went to see what a post-Chavez Venezuela might look like.
When we arrived in Caracas in early March, the death of Hugo Chavez had just been announced, and the atmosphere was very emotionally charged. It was common to run into people in the streets on the verge of tears. People who told us they’d owed their livelihoods and homes to the president's social policies. Huge crowds of Chavistas had been bussed into the capital to pay their final respects. They were dressed in red T-shirts and caps, many from Chavez election rallies of recent years, adorned with his face and slogans. Our hotel was swarming with Venezuelan soldiers wearing Chavez armbands – the army had set up a base there, to manage the large numbers of extra troops bussed in for security at this exceptional moment in the country’s history.
But after the emotion and hysteria of Chavez’ state funeral had passed, we started to hear from Venezuelans with a very different outlook on the regime. Students told us they were prepared to go to prison to fight for more freedom of the press, for the right to demonstrate against the government. We attended a packed press conference by the opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Dozens of journalists and supporters were packed into his cramped headquarters, small rooms accessible thorough a tiny locked door behind a reinforced metal curtain. Capriles openly questioned whether the ruling party had lied about exact circumstances of Chavez’s death for political gain. And residents from Venezuela’s largest shanty town, Petare, told us why they were now voting for the opposition – citing inefficient and unjust public services and soaring violent-crime rates.
We left the country sure that Hugo Chavez’ impact will be felt for generations to come. His huge social housing projects for millions of poor Venezuelans are everywhere, many still under construction. Government-run supermarkets and health clinics have been set up throughout the country. But all this has come at a cost, eating up billions of dollars of the national budget. If ever the price of oil were to drop, economic turmoil would hit Venezuela hard. And as a charismatic, boisterous leader, Chavez had a grip on the public psyche. The shoes of the leader known as ‘el Comandante’ will take a long time to fill.