WEST PALM BEACH, FL, January 6, 2012 ― Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is dying.
Despite the secrecy from Venezuela and Cuba, all signs point to the likelihood that 58-year-old dictator Hugo Chavez is dying from the cancer he has battled since June 2011. Chavez underwent a fourth round of treatment for unspecified cancer in Cuba in early December, and uncharacteristically has not stepped in front of the cameras since that time.
Also uncharacteristically, Chavez named an heir before the latest operation – something he has avoided doing at any previous time in his presidency.
The latest statements from anointed successor and Vice President Nicolas Maduro say Chavez’s condition is “delicate” and that he is suffering from a serious respiratory infection as well as “other complications” from the surgery He insists, however, that the bombastic president will recover and run the country.
Chavez won a fourth presidential term in October. His inauguration is scheduled for January 10, but it is unlikely Chavez will recover in time to attend the event. This has led to calls by the opposition to hold new elections, as required by the constitution.
Unless Chavez dies in the next few days, however, he and his supporters are likely to succeed in delaying the inauguration until the situation comes into focus. Chavez can legally postpone taking the oath of office for up to 180 days if he pleads “temporary incapacitation.” Under that scenario, however, Chavez must show that he is actively running the country during his incapacitation and that his prognosis is positive.
The government, and Chavez, have avoided seeking the “temporary incapacitation” designation, adding to the already swirling rumors about the President’s condition.
By simply delaying the inauguration and pretending it is an insignificant and unimportant event, Chavez and his supporters may be trying to avoid the requirement to provide detailed information on his condition. If Chavez is seriously ill and dying, his supporters may try to draw out the transition process, allowing an extremely ill Chavez to remain officially in power and avert new elections while the party sorts out internal succession questions and positions itself for a new round of elections.
Declaring Chavez permanently incapacitated, too ill to run the country, would require Venezuela to hold presidential elections within 30 days. Immediate elections without Chavez would likely favor moderate leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, who lost the last election to Chavez.
That outcome is likely unpalatable to Chavez and his supporters.
So the question becomes what happens now.
The most likely short term scenario is that Chavez and his supporters will draw out the inevitable. They will not disclose the details of his illness, deferring questions and suggesting he is improving. This buys them time to make decisions about who will run the country after Chavez, which likely will involve considerable dislocation inside the Chavista movement.
The reality is there is no Chavismo without Chavez, thanks to his iron control of the country over the last 14 years. Maduro, the choice of both Chavez and Cuba, is probably too weak to hold together the movement unless the real power resides behind the next president. Maduro is a safe choice for Chavez because he will follow the lead from the President, but that is also what makes him weak.
The individual who probably will carry the Socialist mantle created by Chavez is Diosdado Cabello, who yesterday was re-elected head of the National Assembly. Despite the fact that the opposition detests him and Chavez did not name him successor, his strong ties with the military and business position him to take over when Chavez officially gives up power.
Cabello, a former soldier, took part in the 1992 coup attempted by Chavez, and he was jailed with Chavez for the failed attempt. Since coming to power, Chavez has kept Cabello in his inner circle, although at arms length. Personal ambitions by Cabello have made Chavez wary of the National Assembly leader. In April 2002, Cabello took the presidency anti-Chavez elements who launched a coup, and remained in office for 47 hours. His first act as President was to send navy special forces to rescue Chavez and return him to power.
Cabello is extremely wealthy thanks to spoils under the Chavez administration and has extensive business interests. He also has strong ties to the military, which would likely support him, and business. Ideologically, Cabello parallels Chavez, and would likely continue most of the policies created by Chavez. In many ways, the succession would resemble the situation in Cuba when Fidel Castro passed power to his brother Raul.
The opposition will have to walk a fine line during the illness of Chavez, granting him respect as a long-time leader while challenging his tactics within the confines of the constitution. Many Venezuelans continue to revere Chavez, and delivered him a victory in the last election, and will respond negatively to over-zealous attacks by the opposition. However, they will need to remain vigilant to ensure that the Chavistas do not attempt to skirt the election requirement and slip another strong-man into place while they are not paying attention.
If Chavez dies in the short term, however, it could create a very unstable situation for Venezuela. Chavez’s sudden death would cause immediate maneuvering by Maduro, who likely believes he should replace Chavez because it is the wish of the president, the military and Cabello. The opposition will clamor for immediate elections and ramp up criticism of Chavez. His death could also spark rioting by distraught supporters and those seeking to capitalize on the instability.
In a worst-case scenario, the death of Chavez could trigger a military intervention under the rationale of restoring calm, setting back Venezuelan democracy even further and severely testing relations with the United States.
The United States must conduct a dicey balancing act as it awaits information on Chavez. Washington already is coming under fire for initiating contact with Maduro in an effort to create a “post-Chavez thaw.” US officials say State Department officials wished Chavez a speedy recovery and did not mention the possibility of a government without him, but focused on improving relations and potentially restoring ambassadors. Washington says it told Maduro the first step in better relations is for Caracas to accept a visit by a high-level DEA official based in Colombia to discuss counter-narcotics cooperation.
Washington needs to create good relations with whoever runs Venezuela after Chavez, or whoever takes the helm while he is unable to make decisions. For the United States, drug cooperation is extremely important, and Washington desperately wants to curb the growing problem of traffickers heading to Venezuela to run operations. The United States also wants to work with Venezuela against terrorism, reduce Venezuelan collaboration with countries like Iran and Syria, and secure energy (i.e., oil) cooperation from a future leader.
At the same time, however, Washington needs to avoid the appearance of ignoring Chavez or attempting to undercut him.
The United States could become an important ally for both opposition candidates and those inside the Chavista movement vying for supremacy. A nod from Washington might tip the scale in favor of individuals trying to gain power. For Maduro, for example, the call from the Department of State likely lent legitimacy to a Vice President widely viewed as a short-term caretaker. He no doubt will try to play on that authority as he tries to retain power even after Chavez.
Venezuela is staging for a transition from the charismatic, dominant, dictatorial and leftist Chavez. Unless the determined Chavez undergoes something of a medical miracle, the country will face the reality of his death before the end of 2013. While it is a chance for true change and progress for the country, it could also bring chaos or repression.
Venezuela, Washington and the world must now wait and see.
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