- - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela — Amid protests against the socialist government, two things have become clear: President Nicolas Maduro is no Hugo Chavez, and neither is the opposition.

Mr. Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the late Chavez, has remained popular among the rural and urban working class but has failed to garner support among the discontented middle class.

Presenting himself as a president for the common man, Mr. Maduro regularly calls for loyalty to Chavez and the revolution.

He evokes memories of his predecessor, who died last March after a long battle with cancer and more than 14 years as Venezuela’s leader, but his elan and eloquence pale in comparison with those of Chavez.

The 51-year-old former bus driver and union leader appears ill at ease at events where Chavez would have captivated the audience, and he frequently misspeaks.

Delivering a speech in August, he said, “We will multiply as the Christ multiplied the penis, sorry, the breads.” In Spanish, “penes” is penis and “panes” is breads.

He has become the target of mockery: “Maduro mas burro” (“Maduro more ‘like’ a donkey”) is a saying spread throughout the country.

Nicolas Maduro is far less charismatic than Chavez and ruins his credibility with his public,” said media sociologist Maryclen Stelling, noting how Mr. Maduro has tried to mimic his mentor. “The gesture, the humor, the aggressivity, nothing has the same impact.”

Still, he has managed to hold on to power by continuing Chavez’s legacy of nationalizing private industries and minimizing the independence of his country’s media.

Late last year, Mr. Maduro implemented the Bolivarian System of Information and Communication, which has allowed him to appear on every TV station for an hour and 50 minutes every day since the anti-government demonstrations began. The opposition regularly denounces his government’s media advantage.

“Five months after being elected, he had a positive rating of only 39 percent,” political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said of Mr. Maduro, who took office in April. “After this, he took a series of populist measures, such as forcing companies accused of speculation to lower their prices, and now the majority of the population trusts him again.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition has the backing of students and the middle to upper classes but has not attracted the interest of the lower classes beholden to Chavez’s socialist policies.

Residents in the “barrios,” or poorer areas, of Venezuela have largely remained quiet as protesters — many of them university students — have demonstrated in the streets and taken control of public areas over the past month. On Tuesday, security forces regained control of Caracas’ Plaza Altamira, which demonstrators used as a base for protests.

“The opposition is divided and is giving different instructions to protesters. Some want to stay in the street until the fall of the government; others prefer to wait,” said Rafael Uzcategui, an activist for Provea, a nongovernmental organization focused on human rights. “The government has not presented good conditions for dialogue, but the opposition must talk. We have to choose between cohabitation or civil war.”

Since Jan. 23, opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado have encouraged face-to-face confrontations between the opposition and authorities in a street movement called #LaSalida. Mr. Lopez has been arrested and charged with inciting violence.

Nonetheless, the 42-year-old economist has won some credit among the more radical in the opposition. In Plaza Altamira, a posh area in eastern Caracas, the young people who confront the police claim Mr. Lopez as the leader of #LaSalida.

“[Mr. Lopez] is a neurotic, but he is the only one who has the guts to fight against this dictatorship,” said Aquiles Ferreira, a student who was preparing a Molotov cocktail.

However, opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, 41, has found it difficult to distance himself from his jailed colleague. Although he demands Mr. Lopez’s liberation, Mr. Capriles says #LaSalida is not the best solution.

“We have to organize ourselves on a long-term basis,” said Mr. Capriles, leader of the Primero Justicia party and governor of the Miranda state.

“Capriles is not playing his game,” said Ms. Stelling, the media sociologist. “He could definitely be the leader of all the opposition, but because of his hesitations, he is losing voters. One day he accepts dialogue with the regime, but the day after he calls Maduro a ‘history mistake.’”

Conversely, Mr. Maduro hasn’t changed his Chavist rhetoric. He continually blames the “fascist bourgeois” for all of the country’s plagues and does not seem outwardly worried about the fate of the revolution.

Nicolas Maduro seems confident and continues his daily activities,” said political analyst Luis Delgado. “But he has organized a lot of meetings with different economic and social sectors, as if he was campaigning.”

Some industry representatives have agreed to participate in discussions with the Maduro administration, as opposition leaders refuse to talk with the government.

Small landowner Omaira Medina, who has opposed the revolution since its start, has soured on the situation and the socialist government.

Maduro and his government are useless, but there is no one to confront them,” Ms. Medina said. “If [billionaire food magnate] Lorenzo Mendoza was running for president now, I would vote for him, at least because he has ideas to solve the current crisis.”

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