CARACAS, Venezuela — Ramon Pacheco likes to boast that he is a Chávista to his bones.
President of his rural consejo communal, or commune, outside the northern city of El Consejo, Pacheco has voted for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in each of his four presidential runs. A member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the 37 year-old farmer has been willing to overlook growing crime in his village, constant power outages, as well as shortages of fertilizer, seeds, and basic foodstuffs such as corn meal and sugar.
"I believe in Chávez," says Pacheco. "Sure, we have problems -- but they're not el comandante's fault. He's surrounded by incompetents, opportunists, and thieves."
He's still not sure which of the three Vice President Nicolás Maduro is. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir apparent last month before leaving to undergo his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba. Since his departure, Chávez hasn't been seen or heard from -- leading to rumors about his demise or permanent incapacitation. The president is said to be battling a respiratory infection that has made it difficult for him to breathe.
But we now know for certain what has been suspected for weeks -- that the president will be unable to attend Thursday's scheduled swearing-in ceremony. The National Assembly voted on Jan. 8 to allow Chávez to be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. (Under the Venezuelan Constitution, however, all presidents must be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, or before the Supreme Court at another location.) The country's supreme court ruled on Jan. 9 that the postponement is constitutional. What will happen, though, if Chávez doesn't recover is a more problematic question.
"Maduro's no Chávez," Pacheco says. "He doesn't connect with the people like Chávez does. He doesn't understand us. He doesn't think like one of us. I may think differently if he starts to do something like take a strong stance against corruption, which is running wild here. I just don't see him doing that."
Whether Chávismo will be able to survive in the event Chávez dies, or is unable to continue governing, will depend on Maduro's abilities to convince people like Pacheco that he can carry on the country's socialist revolution. The challenge is that the revolution, up until now, has been a populist movement rooted in the president's visceral charisma and force of personality, rather than any concrete principles or policy platform.
"I have my doubts about Chávismo without Chávez," Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in the October presidential race by 10 percentage points, told El Universal newspaper in a widely quoted interview. "Any leadership without Chávez appears to be to be profoundly vulnerable."
The tall, mustachioed Maduro -- the new face of Chávismo -- has had a rocky start since taking center stage last month. Unlike the glad-handing Chávez, who was constantly kissing, embracing, and hugging his countrymen, the former bus driver appears aloof and disconnected.
Maduro's speaking style is stolid, especially when compared to his mentor's jocular verbosity. Chávez often spoke for hours in televised monologues, working in slanders against his opponents, discussions of his love life, and even jokes about his diarrhea.
Maduro, who has increasingly opted to wear shirts of any hue save red, the color of Chávez and the revolution, has adopted an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the opposition, and especially their insistence that the government release a full medical report on the ailing president.
In doing so, Maduro has seemingly hurt himself by giving overly optimistic reports on Chávez, which were subsequently contradicted by others.
"So far, Maduro has proven to be a much less articulate and charismatic speaker than Chávez," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "The opposition would probably like him to continue talking."