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Meanwhile, Chávez has done his utmost to sideline viable opposition candidates, chiefly through an often arbitrarily enforced new law that disqualifies politicians who are deemed to have committed corrupt acts in their past, even if they were never convicted. One potential contender, Leopoldo López, the popular former mayor of Caracas' Chacao district, has already been eliminated from the 2012 race under the rule. (He and many other inhabilitados have taken their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.) That said, however, Venezuela's fractured and incompetent opposition, much of it the remnants of the shameless kleptocracy Chávez toppled in 1998, has a notorious habit of undermining itself without his help.
Back on Chávez's side, a big part of the problem is that the leftists who backed him for President in the 1990s saw in him a way to power, but many never imagined he would consume so much of it. And he's done so largely because he's so much more skilled at connecting with Venezuela's poor than are most of the Marxists who surround him. (Although Venezuela has the western hemisphere's largest oil reserves, more than half its population lived in poverty when Chávez was first elected; to his credit, he's changed that inexcusable situation.)
When I was on a fellowship in Caracas in the 1980s, leftist students and professors weren't shy about telling me what an evil nation I hailed from and how bourgeois and insensitive Americans were to the sufferings of the third world. So I took them at their word and became a volunteer teacher in one of the squalid slums that ring the capital. Yet when I would mention that to those same critics, I'd get looks suggesting I was crazy. "I'd never go up there," they'd say. "It's too dangerous." Many of them, it turned out, were Calvin Klein socialists for whom the poor were an ideological abstraction they rarely saw, let alone talked to.
I'm certainly not suggesting that the Chavista elite are all Calvin Klein socialists. To the contrary, many are genuinely more committed to real deeds than to revolutionary dogma when it comes to improving Venezuelans' lives. Still, it's obvious today that too many on the left rely on Chávez to engage average Venezuelans for them and as a result, governance in Venezuela has come to focus too much on his personality rather than on constitutional process. It's something Chavistas need to consider more seriously during his absence.