* New president struggling to live up to Chavez legacy
* Economic distortions proving biggest challenge
* December mayoral elections loom as referendum on Maduro
By Andrew Cawthorne
CIUDAD CARIBIA, Venezuela, Oct 4 Hovering over a
sun-baked mountain one day in his presidential helicopter, Hugo
Chavez had a dream: to build a utopian city that would showcase
socialism in Venezuela.
Slowly and chaotically over the years that followed, the
late president's pet project - conceived a decade into his rule
and named "Ciudad Caribia" for the country's indigenous Carib
people - began to take shape on the mountain 10 km (6 miles)
northwest of the capital, Caracas.
"This was his dream. Now it is his legacy," said hairdresser
Yalmy Rumbo, 39, watching her children play and laugh in a
public square where Cuban instructors were organizing games.
Rumbo is among the first 1,600 families, almost all refugees
from floods and mudslides around Caracas, to have been given
homes in new apartment blocks covered in Chavez imagery.
Eventually, Caribia is intended to house 20,000 families,
although critics complain at the slow pace of construction, the
collapse of some shoddily-built walls and the lack of
transparency over huge sums invested.
Caribia is a hotbed of pro-Socialist Party government
sentiment in a country that otherwise was deeply divided in
electing charismatic Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas
Maduro as president in April.
After Chavez's death from cancer in March at the age of 58,
the popularity of "El Comandante" has grown and taken on even
deeper religious undertones among the support base that kept him
in power for 14 years.
While that helped Maduro, a former bus driver, union
activist and member of parliament win a six-year term as
president, it is also making it near-impossible for him to step
out of Chavez's shadow.
"As long as Nicolas maintains Chavez's route, the people
will be with him. If he deviates from Chavez, everything will
change, he'll be finished," said Rumbo.
Therein lies Maduro's dilemma.
He owes everything, from his political inheritance to his
election, to his late mentor. So, unsurprisingly, he parrots
Chavez at every turn, be it thundering at the U.S. "empire" or
trying to prove himself a man of the people during his daily,
Yet to solve a daunting array of problems, from the highest
inflation in the Americas and embarrassing shortages of basic
goods to rampant corruption and shoddy infrastructure, many feel
Maduro needs to become his own man and tweak some policies.
"I feel sorry for him sometimes. He's trying so hard to be
like Chavez, but that's simply an impossible task. I can
understand why he's doing it, but he can't spend his entire
six-year term like that," a senior government insider told
"It's almost heresy to say it, but we know there were
mistakes under Chavez, and it's time to fix them. If we're to
survive, if 'Chavismo' is to survive, that is essential."
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there
was an emerging view in the ruling Socialist Party that major
policy planks such as nationalization and currency controls may
have run their course.
As if following in the larger-than-life Chavez's footsteps
was not hard enough, Maduro, 50, only just made it into them in
the first place, scraping through the April election by just 1.5
points when all polls had pointed to a bigger win.
There was much muttering within the Socialist Party over how
Maduro could have squandered Chavez's 11-point winning margin
from the previous election in October 2012, despite the wave of
sympathy over his death. Many blamed a lackluster campaign.
Losing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles refused to
accept the result, accusing Maduro of fraud, and his coalition
has since labeled the government illegitimate and incompetent.
Yet with the election board and courts throwing out
Capriles' challenge, and Latin American neighbors broadly
backing him, Maduro appears to have shored up his political
In fact, his main threat is no longer the post-election
dispute but the South American OPEC nation's ailing and
Regardless of their politics, Venezuelans across the board
are fed up with power cuts, rising prices - 45 percent in a year
- and the increasing grind to make ends meet.
"I voted for Chavez, then for Maduro, but this is becoming
intolerable," said secretary Margarita Vivas, 43, leaving a
supermarket in the middle-class Caracas district of El Paraiso
after spending a third of her monthly salary on food.
Red banners of Chavez's face and election posters for Maduro
plastered walls next to the supermarket.
"I have to say the truth, even if it hurts: socialism is
making me poorer," added Vivas, staring at the posters.
In a recent survey by pollster IVAD, 67 percent of
Venezuelans had a pessimistic view of the country's general
direction, 20 points higher than at the election.
Maduro's personal approval ratings, though, have only dipped
a few points, to between 45-50 percent in most polls, perhaps as
"Chavistas" stay loyal to the former president's dying call for
them to back Maduro, and give him longer to fix their problems.
Capriles' ratings are off, too, as his election challenge
sputtered and his media profile dropped.
"Maduro still has the benefit of the doubt. But if after a
year, he is still trying to act like Chavez yet not showing
progress, people may get tired and his ratings might fall into
the 30s," said David Smilde, a sociology professor at the
University of Georgia who has studied Venezuela for 20 years.
"He needs to develop some independent policies."
Maduro, who famously worked as a bus driver in Caracas
before entering union activities and politics, says pessimism
over his presidency is a product of a "war" against him by his
opponents and media censorship of his achievements.
Terming his rule "Street Government", Maduro reels off
statistics - such as $16 billion disbursed in 2,000 new projects
during his first 100 days in government - as evidence of fresh
energy. "It's a revolution within the revolution," he said.
Yet even supporters struggle to name any significant new
Maduro has shown some hesitant signs of considering
pragmatic reforms, particularly to unblock access to dollars.
He made a show of meeting with private businessmen - who
were demonized by Chavez - and continually promises to tinker
with a Byzantine currency control system to allow greater
flexibility and a larger flow of hard currency.
Yet importers continue to moan at the lack of dollars. And
the scramble for greenbacks is distorting the economy more than
ever. The black market price for dollars is now about seven
times the official rate of 6.3 bolivars, much weaker than under
"The 'pseudo' economic policy pragmatism is a function of
political pragmatism, ahead of the December local elections and
the declining popularity of the Maduro administration," Siobhan
Morden, head of Latin America strategy at Jefferies, wrote in a
research note in September.
Such a withering assessment may be expected from Wall
Street, but it is also starting to be heard in socialist
Ruling party member and political analyst Nicmer Evans says
the government is "kidding itself" that currency and price
controls are working, and says selective corruption arrests will
not work if better-connected officials are left untouchable.
"The currency controls, as now conceived, have become a den
of corruption, and focus of action for the parasitical
'boli-bourgeoisie' who follow the same instinct as the old
oligarchy - bleed the state dry," Evans wrote in a blog last
month, using an opposition term for those who made it rich under
The next flashpoint in Venezuelan politics is likely to come
on Dec. 8 with elections for mayorships around the country.
Opposition activists are hoping grassroots discontent at the
plethora of day-to-day problems will produce a protest vote, and
Capriles is portraying the ballot as a referendum on Maduro.
Yet the government maintains a powerful vote-mobilizing
machine and will present the election as a homage to Chavez,
meaning another split-down-the-middle outcome is most likely.
A more significant date may be 2016, when the opposition has
a chance to demand a referendum to try and recall Maduro. That
measure is allowed under the constitution halfway through a
presidential term, if some 3.8 million signatures are gathered.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan society remains as polarized, paranoid
and rumor-rife as ever it was under Chavez. The government
denounces assassination and coup plans almost every day, while
opposition activists predict economic chaos will bring Maduro
down. Despite some of the more excitable predictions, political
analyst Smilde said he sees the government "limping along for a
Back at Ciudad Caribia, all but a few residents are hoping
Maduro will manage to complete his term in order to safeguard
Chavez-era benefits which they say transformed their lives.
Community leader Margarita Fornica, 37, describes Chavez's
legacy in personal terms: from barely making a living in a
damaged home on a hillside prone to mudslides, she now works as
a cleaner at a school in Caribia, has five children enjoying
free education, and is doing the TV production course she always
"He gave us a second chance at life," she said,
enthusiastically showing a visitor around the complex. "And he
was such a visionary that he even prepared us for his death. He
told us to follow Nicolas, so that is what I will do."