By John Rapley
Say what you will about Hugo Chávez, nobody was indifferent to the man and rare are those who will declare he did not make his mark.
Hero to Venezuela's poor and villain to its middle class, an icon to the alter-globalisation movement and a thorn in Washington's side, his years in power were filled with drama. But he leaves an uncertain legacy. The question everywhere, including in Caracas, is, can Chávismo survive Chávez?
The late president's successor, his vice-president and designated inheritor Nicolás Maduro, has signalled there will be continuity. His immediate dig at the US in a speech apparently put paid to the hopes some in Washington had expressed that they might find a more pliable partner in Mr Maduro.
Or did it? Venezuelan law requires a presidential election to be held within 30 days of the death of a president. Although Mr Maduro has little of Mr Chávez's charisma or easy rapport with crowds, it's quite likely that a swell of sympathy will catapult him into office.
Yet, while Mr Maduro will almost certainly continue Chávismo's populist programme, he is also known as a canny negotiator who makes hard-line statements in public but is willing to give ground in private. His speeches on the campaign trail should perhaps, therefore, be treated as much as opening positions as actual policy pledges.
OPPOSITION'S POPULARITY GROWING
And over the coming years, the pressure to alter Chávismo will only grow. The opposition, though demoralised by its defeat in the recent presidential election, has been growing in popularity. For all the gains in social development which it has delivered (which have been huge), Chávismo suffers from many of the structural flaws that often characterise what can be called charismatic populism - in particular, a focus on development that ultimately hinders growth, and therefore undermines the model's long-term sustainability.
For example, the high price of oil over the last decade has generated windfall revenues for Venezuela, which has made it possible for the State to fund its expansive social programmes. However, because these revenues have been distributed rather than reinvested, the pace of output growth in the Venezuelan oil industry has been poor. Even without a drop in the world price of oil in coming years, Venezuela's revenues are on track to decline.
Meanwhile, the rest of the economy has been contracting. Between the distorting effect of a currency driven up in value by oil revenues, and Mr Chávez's anti-capitalist rhetoric, the private sector has withered.
One might forgive this if Chávismo had been consistently socialist. But, in fact, a small clique of wealthy business people with close ties to the ruling party has profited from the erosion of competition throughout the private sector, and grown fabulously wealthy (a situation not unlike what happened in 1970s Jamaica, incidentally).
Mr Maduro, therefore, takes office amid a shortage of basic goods, rising inflation, high crime and an inefficient public sector whose ranks were doubled during Mr Chávez's term.
LOSS OF A SAVIOUR
In the short term, the government can forge ahead. Venezuela's relatively low level of debt will enable it to plug any spending gaps by borrowing. But over the longer term, without some kind of changes to the model to improve its efficiency, it will head towards an eventual crisis.
But perhaps the biggest problem facing Mr Maduro is what the famed German sociologist called the routinisation of charisma. Mr Chávez gave poor Venezuelans a sense of direct connection to the political system, via him. In a country where the poor had been historically excluded and marginalised from politics, he appeared as something of a saviour.
But his immense charisma, his showmanship, his direct bond via his Sunday television broadcasts, are not easily mimicked. The social benefits will flow. Nostalgia will be strong. But the love for the leader seems almost certain to diminish under Mr Chávez's successor. In time, that may weaken the hold of the Bolívarian Revolution.
Chávismo lit up the political galaxy. It remains to be seen whether that light can survive the extinction of the star at its centre.
John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.