After 14 years of strong-arm rule by Hugo Chavez, Venezuela must now chart a new path forward with the passing of its leader, which raises questions about the direction of its oil-dependent economy.
It was through the country’s oil industry that Chavez was able to fund his expansive social welfare programs that garnered him support from the majority of Venezuela’s poor and working class.
Chavez was an outsized figure, whose assertive personality and autocratic governing style drove his policies forward, and his absence will no doubt leave a vacuum in the country’s leadership.
Chavez’s protégé Vice President Nicolas Maduro would be expected to carry on his mentor’s policies, but he must first win a snap election that will be held within the next 30 days in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., believes that Maduro will win the election and will not introduce any major economic policies shifts.
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"The economy grew 5.6 percent last year," said Weisbrot. "They're doing well right now."
Weisbrotadded that the greatest economic challenge facing the Venezuelan government is the exchange rate, which has a large impact on the value of the country's oil exports.
Most recently, the government devalued the currency, the bolivar, in a bid to stabilize the price of its exports, but it will also increase inflation, which is already above 20 percent.
Nevertheless, the Venezuelan economy hinges upon its oil revenues, which Weisbrot said will be the main concern of the next administration.
Opposition leader and state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski is the most likely candidate to run against Maduro, having proven a viable challenger in last year’s presidential elections with 44 percent of the votes to Chavez’s 55 percent.
During his campaign, Capriles laid out a new economic vision characterized by moderate reforms and diversification.
Venezuela’s nationalized oil industry accounts for some 94 percent of its foreign revenue, leaving the economy highly vulnerable to fluctuations in global oil prices, as well as to the tapering off of production.
With a significant portion of oil revenues being funneled into social programs, little has gone back into the industry, leading to criticism from the opposition that safety standards and productivity are suffering.
The state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, set out in 2005 to produce 5.8 million barrels of oil per day by 2012, but actual production is between 2.8 to 3 million barrels, according to the Economist.
The opposition has been careful not to push privatizing the oil industry or divesting from the country’s popular social programs and risk a political backlash, but it has suggested opening up other sectors of the economy such as tourism, energy, agriculture and telecommunications.
These sectors remain relatively underdeveloped in terms of foreign investment, but such economic reforms are unlikely to occur under a socialist-led government.
The opposition will have little time to launch a new presidential campaign, but the higher-than-average support they received in October -- even with the state media working against them -- indicates that stagnant economic conditions may be pushing more Venezuelans toward market reforms.
An earlier version of this story characterized Mark Weisbrot as "sympathetic to the Chavez administration." That description has been taken down at the request of CEPR',which noted that "while we have noted many positive policies and accomplishments by the Chavez government (...) we have criticized others."