COLUMN - Chavez's death leaves Venezuelans with hard choices

(Gary Regenstreif is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Gary Regenstreif

NEW YORK, March 12 (Reuters) - Venezuela has kicked off a presidential election campaign whose charismatic central figures are a governor and a ghost. The victor, however, may well be the flesh and blood heir of a revolutionary regime left to grapple with real and deepening crises.

The opposition has seized upon the death of President Hugo Chavez last week as an opportunity to break the 14-year grip on power of the self-styled socialist revolutionary and send their candidate, state Governor Henrique Capriles, to the Miraflores palace in elections set for April 14. But the outpouring of grief following El Comandante's death from cancer showed the polarizing figure will continue to grip the national psyche.

Venezuelans either lionized or loathed their populist president. He was a hero to millions for using the country's oil wealth to finance welfare programs. Chavez won October's vote with an 11-point lead against Capriles, whose 44 percent tally was nonetheless the best performance yet against Chávez in an election. To his detractors, he was an autocrat who trampled constitutional rights, nationalized up to 1,000 companies and scared off foreign investment.

Capriles will seek to convince the mostly poor Venezuelans who supported Chavez that his regime produced mixed results at best and that their lofty revolutionary dreams are largely unfulfilled. The centrist candidate, who looks to Brazil for a model of social inclusion, argues it's time to address down-to-earth economic woes, corruption and crime that plague this OPEC nation with the world's largest oil reserves.

I watched Chávez sow the seeds of his revolution 20 years ago. On Feb. 4, 1992, as the new Reuters bureau chief in Caracas, tracer fire in the nighttime sky lured me to the presidential residence, where I witnessed police fighting rebel troops loyal to a paratrooper named Hugo Chavez. The rebellion was quickly crushed and Chávez jailed. Asked whether he was shelving his bid for power, he replied, "for now."

When he emerged from prison two years later, I interviewed him about his intentions. Sitting on lawn chairs in front of his modest home, he shared some thoughts about creating a more egalitarian society. His ideas were still germinating and he didn't articulate a clear roadmap about how to achieve that. I left wondering whether this ideal was enough to convince Venezuelans with the dream of a better future to cast their ballots his way. They did, in a 1998 vote, and in several subsequent trips to the ballot box.

Chavez supporters don't appear ready to let go. At his funeral, mourners chanted "Chavez lives! The fight continues!" Millions have stood in line to see his coffin. Some have erected altars to him in their homes. The forces of Chavismo are ensuring he will not be out of sight or out of mind: He will be embalmed and put on permanent display much like Communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

Despite Chavez's persistent presence, it is the successor he anointed who will appear on the ballot and likely be the reigning embodiment of his regime. Nicolas Maduro, the bus driver turned union leader turned vice president, was sworn in as interim president on Friday. Maduro has vowed to keep Chavez's socialist dream alive and has come out comfortably ahead, by over 10 percentage points, in recent opinion polls.

At a time when tears are still fresh, criticizing Chavez could work against Capriles. That narrows his plan of attack.

He could point out that during the Chavez regime, Venezuela experienced among the lowest rates of economic growth and highest rates of inflation in Latin America. Consumer prices rose 23 percent in February from a year earlier.

He could also point out that people in Venezuela are more likely to be killed or kidnapped than anywhere else in Latin merica and indeed most places in the world. It's getting worse, with homicides in this Caribbean country of 29 million up 12 percent to 16,000 in 2012, the interior minister announced earlier this month. That's the same number of murders as in the United States, a country with more than 10 times the population.

And while Chávez's face beams from billboards in Venezuela much like revolutionary hero Che Guevara's does in Cuba, basic foodstuffs are missing from shelves in the shops below and power shortages are common.

Chavez supporters can point to the level of poverty declining, due in part to spending on social programs. How long the country can continue to finance them is unclear. Oil production has fallen by perhaps a third since Chavez took office because of a lack of investment, eroding the ability to use export earnings to finance spending.

The year he was elected, Venezuela produced 3.41 million barrels per day. According to U.S. government energy data, production was down to 2.47 million bpd in 2011. A Reuters poll of analysts who trace oil production suggests the country's output in the first two months of 2013 was an estimated 2.34 million bpd.

Meanwhile, fuel demand has risen, in part because of the continuing subsidies offered to motorists (gasoline at the pump costs about 10 cents a gallon), but Venezuela's refining capacity has similarly fallen, requiring it to rely more heavily on fuel imports at international prices.

While Maduro may wear the revolutionary mantle his patron bestowed upon him, many acknowledge he doesn't have the same charisma. Or the funds to keep the revolution alive indefinitely.

(Gary Regenstreif, Special Projects Editor at Reuters, was bureau chief in Caracas from 1992 to 1995. He joined the news agency in his native Canada and has also been posted to Buenos Aires, Rome and Paris. He is now based in New York.) (Gary Regenstreif)