WASHINGTON, March 5, 2012 – With the death of President Hugo Chavez today, Venezuela enters a period of uncertainty.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro tearfully announced today that the 58-year-old dictator died from complications of cancer. Yesterday, Maduro had warned Venezuelans that Chavez had taken a turn for the worse and was suffering from a serious respiratory infection
Last December, Chavez raised eyebrows when he named Nicolas Maduro Vice President, anointing him heir apparent. In all the years of the Chavez dynasty, he never named anyone as his successor, so the appointment of Maduro suggested to many that Chavez was seriously ill.
Chavez won a fourth presidential term in October. His illness prohibited him from holding an inauguration on January 10 as scheduled.
With the death of Chavez, Venezuela will hold elections after a period of mourning.
Although Chavez wanted Maduro to succeed him, it is unclear whether that will happen.
Over the last several months, Maduro has worked to consolidate support and build his popularity. However, he is likely to face internal opposition as well as an opposition giddy at the prospect of taking on the ruling party without Chavez at the helm.
The Chavismo movement is all but defunct without Chavez, thanks to his iron control of the country over the last 14 years. His bombastic and extreme personality dominated the government, and Chavez personally held control of the country.
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. Chavez likely selected Maduro in hopes that the Vice President would parrot Chavez, but this same quality makes Maduro vulnerable to attacks from within his party.
Diosdado Cabello, long-time head of the National Assembly, is the most likely Maduro challenger. 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 he gained under the Chavez administration and his extensive business interests. 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, although no doubt secretly giddy at the prospect of an election without Chavez, will have to show the utmost respect to Chavez during the mourning period. They must recognize him 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, the opposition and its former presidential candidate 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 during the mourning period.
In a worst-case scenario, the corrupt military cabal that backed Chavez could intervene, using the rationale of restoring calm, setting back Venezuelan democracy even further and severely testing relations with the United States.
For the United States, the death of Chavez presents opportunities as well as dangers. Without Chavez, there is a possibility that the long-antagonistic country could open its doors to warmer relations with the United States. US diplomats reportedly have already reached out to Maduro, in hopes of improving bilateral relations. The United States currently imports large amounts of oil from Venezuela, and improved relations would secure that flow.
Washington will need to ensure positive relations with whoever runs Venezuela after Chavez. For the United States, drug cooperation with Venezuela 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.
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.
In the immediate term, Venezuela will deeply mourn the loss of Hugo Chavez. Regardless of who becomes the next Venezuelan president, the death of Chavez represents the end of an era.
There is no Chavismo without Chavez.
The question, however, is what is left in his wake.
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