With just a few days to go before Sunday's elections (14 April), there's only one winner: Chávez's former vice-president Nicolás Maduro. Here we look at the last-minute grenades coming his way and how he's batting them back with a little help from friends (and enemies) abroad.
The Shouting: Yet To Be Barred.
With all the restraint of his predecessor, Maduro got the ball rolling by saying that opposition aggression towards Cubans in Venezuela made them "the heirs of Hitler". Unfortunately - for this is more accident than design - his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski happens to be of Jewish descent, unleashing one of those "Jews and Nazism in same paragraph!" furores so beloved of the media (see Bradford MP David Ward 's "language classes" for details).
Dr Álvaro Strangelove to the Rescue!
Rushing to Capriles' defence was the region's new-left nemesis for hire, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, who used his Twitter Account of Vengeance to harangue Maduro with a dozen "facts" about the slow death of Venezuela under Chávez.
But Uribe's backing is as much kiss of death as kiss of life for Capriles' ailing campaign. Since leaving office, in word, deed, and even in appearance (below) Uribe has morphed into a political Dr Strangelove, pitifully failing to keep a lid on a murky past and increasingly erratic behaviour.
In a country whose vicious politics somehow receive virtually no foreign coverage - a few mass graves never hurt anyone! - Uribe's name has a habit of popping up where he'd rather it didn't. Recent scandals involve supporting paramilitaries, wire-tapping, and killing civilians in order to present them as successfully combated terrorists; he's even on the board of News International! Unsurprisingly, many in the region now see him as a complete and utter bell-...wether, only in reverse: "if Uribe likes it, then I probably shouldn't".
His is not exactly the kind of support that's going to swing it for Capriles.
Lula Hula Outflanks Lula-Lite
Far more useful would be the support of Capriles' proclaimed role model, the adored and adorable Lula, former president of Brazil. But Lula has other ideas.
Individually and as part of the influential Sao Paolo Forum, Lula has publicly backed Nicolás Maduro, with his artful one-liner tying Maduro's success to the legacy of his much-loved predecessor: "Maduro as president is the Venezuela that Chávez dreamed of." Ouch, right in the election prospects!
María Corina Machado, a prominent member of Team Capriles, has cried foul over Lula's "foreign intervention", but this too rings hollow coming from a politician best known for that photo (below) with everyone's favourite peacenik isolationist George W. Bush.
Nicolás Maduro, Grenade-Swatter Extraordinaire
Back at the rancho, Capriles' attacks have been equally ineffective.
The election-process brouhaha stirred up by the opposition has crumbled in the face of further scrutiny and international recognition (including from the Union of South American Nations, promoted by Chávez precisely so that the continent could handle its own conflicts). Though he was happy to validate the system less than six months ago versus Chávez, with just days to go Capriles stubbornly refuses to do so versus Maduro. This is the latest in a long line of opposition flip-flops on the issue, the biggest flop being their hapless boycott of parliamentary elections in 2005; if there is any real threat to post-election stability in Venezuela then this is it.
Elsewhere, Maduro has used his powers as acting president to raise significantly the minimum wage. He has replaced the head of the corrupt and universally loathed foreign-currency commission CADIVI. And like Chávez before him he has (somewhat dubiously) blamed opposition sabotage for power cuts, creating enough doubt either way to last him until he's in the hot seat.
A thornier issue long-term will be keeping internal factionalism under control. As Venezuelan diplomat Kaldone G. Nweihed puts it, the PSUV can be split into its Talibanesque, Patriotic, and Bolibourgeois wings (extreme left, national-interest defenders, and rent-seeking fakes), with the Taliban unimpressed by new middle-ground supporters that "put on red t-shirts and turn into revolutionaries."
So Should I Put My House on Maduro?
Well, let's just say that when I searched for the odds a minute ago, it wasn't only this article I had in mind (no joy, I'm afraid). A quick look at recent polls (below) suggests you could now safely put your house, the farm, and your first-born on it.
Across six polling companies, the average Maduro lead is 15.4 points. But don't be alarmed if you hear otherwise: someone is always willing to fiddle the numbers, and someone else to print them.
Enter Datamática (stage right), who through some Penn-and-Teller legerdemain manage to contradict more established polls by 20 points, giving Capriles a 5 point lead. As with wider press coverage, reporting of this poll without the others will tell you more about the politics of media ownership than about those of Venezuela.
Frankly, they might as well get to work on how to misrepresent Maduro once he's in office.
1) Combined from "O presidente da Colômbia, Álvaro Uribe, deixa encontro com o presidente Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva na embaixada do Brasil" by Antonio Cruz/ABr (Creative Commons licence via Wikimedia) and "Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove from Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove." by Stanley Kubrick/Columbia Pictures (published in public domain between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice, via Wikimedia).
2) "President George W. Bush welcomes Maria Corina Machado, the founder and executive director of Sumate, an independent democratic civil society group in Venezuela, to the Oval Office Tuesday, May 31, 2005" by Eric Draper (Public domain from Office of President of the US, via Wikimedia)
3) "Venezuelan Presidential Election Polling 2013 early April", © 2013 Asa K Cusack.