After suffering a relapse, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has traveled once again to Cuba to undergo medical treatment for the cancer he’s battled for at least a year. Before his departure, he named Vice-President Nicolas Maduro as his successor.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a flurry of speculation regardinghow dire Chávez’s health isand whether he will be able to recover (early reports state that the operation was successful) and continue ruling until the end of his term in 2019 or, in a worst-case scenario, should Venezuela be preparing itself for a post-Chávez era.
The head of state hinted that, should new elections be held in his country, he was confident that Maduro would earn the votes of Venezuelans. If indeedChávez’s health eventually becomes too frail for himto continue the goals of his administration and his revolution, the million-dollar question will be whether his Bolivarian blueprint for Venezuela can be carried out without him at the helm.
Hugo Chávez successor named ahead of Dec. 16 elections
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if the head of state cannot complete his six-year term within the first four years, new presidential elections must be call within 30 days. With Maduro now in control of the country whileChávez is in Cuba, it will be interesting to see if he will carry through Chávez’s ultimate legacy of being a steadfast constitutionalist.
In an extreme scenario, if Chávez does not return and elections are called for, then it’s anyone’s guess as to what might happen. Maduro may very well call for elections and run as the candidate for Chávez’sPartido Socialista Unido de Venezuela(PSUV). But does the interim head of state enjoy the same levels of popularity as Chávez among the masses? After Chávez’s latest medical trip to Cuba, the PSUV had an emergency meeting in which its major leaders signed an agreement calling for unity and loyalty.
However, as an analyst put it inAmericas Quarterly: “It is likely that that the PSUV will grant Chávez his wish, and if the time comes, vote for Maduro for no other reason than to pay their last respects. But it is less certain whether this loyalty will be automatically extended to Maduro if he assumes office.”
Henrique Capriles emerges as the likely option
While Maduro has had a meteoric rise to power, he certainly is no Chávez and arguably lacks his charisma and popularity. Another question is whether or not the political opposition would be able to effectively organize itself in time for these possible elections and furthermore, who the presidential candidate would be.Henrique Capriles Radonski, who gave Chávez a run for his moneyin the recent October presidential elections, emerges as the likely option. Chávez defeated Capriles by around 10 points during the election—a bigger difference than was originally predicted, but it still demonstrated that Venezuela’s political opposition had managed to unite around a single candidate and that there is a growing number of dissatisfied voters. Capriles has yet to announce if he would run if new presidential elections are called for, but it is safe to say that pundits, politicians and the Venezuelan population in general may be wondering if Capriles could defeat Maduro.
Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles talks to supporters and media members as he concedes defeat in the presidential elections at his campaign headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. Venezuela’s electoral council said late Sunday President Hugo Chávez has won re-election, defeating challenger Henrique Capriles. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
It is important to highlight thatVenezuela will have regional electionsthis coming December 16. A total of 23 regional governors, 229 members of legislative councils and eight indigenous representatives will be chosen. It will be interesting to see how Chávez’s party does in these elections and what it means for the future of the Bolivarian revolution.
Moreover, Capriles will be rerunning for the governorship of the state of Miranda, and, should he be reelected, this may give him a boost to push for a new attempt at the presidency. Ironically, Elias Jaua, the former Vice President before Maduro, is also running as a PSUV candidate in Miranda against Capriles. The outcome of the governor’s race in Miranda can be used as a foreshadowing as to what could happen in the national elections if they were to be called.
Finally, there is the ever-present question of how the military, theFuerza Armada Nacional Bolivarana(FANB), will react to these new developments. While the armed forces are supposed to be neutral and apolitical according to constitutional mandate, it is no secret that Chávez has populated the military’s leadership with individuals loyal to him. In addition, he has kept his armed forces happy with his cause by spending billions of oil dollars on a variety of military purchases from Russia and China over the past decade. Occasionally the armed forces have declared that they would not accept a head of state that wasn’t Chávez, but what will happen if their former military comrade is physically unable to continue ruling? Another unknown factor will be if the Bolivarian military will be as loyal to Maduro as they have been to Chávez, as well as whether or not they would accept Capriles or any other individual as commander in chief if elections occur and the opposition wins the presidency.
Don’t cry wolf before it shows up
People, one holding an image of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, gather to pray for him at Simon Bolivar square in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
The commentaries discussing Chávez’s health and the likelihood of a Venezuela without the outspoken head of state are similar to the plethora of analyses that have been written over the past decades regardingCuba’s Fidel Castro and his health. Ultimately, in Cuba’s case, Castro has managed to outlast and outlive most of his detractors and enemies; now the question becomes if Chávez will follow in his mentor’s footsteps, overcome his health issues and continue his rule of the oil-rich Venezuela.
During his time as head of state, along with some controversial and memorable statements, it would be unfair to say that Chávez’s rule has only been detrimental to the country. Several of his social initiatives have been very beneficial to the lower echelons of Venezuelan society, which is where Chávez’s support originates.
Nevertheless, when people think of the Venezuelan government and the Chávez’s party, they focus more on Chávez than on any other figure. His power has held for more than a decade, but if his health worsens to the point where he can no longer rule, the question becomes if the Venezuelan people will vote for Maduro to lead in Chávez’s place, or if the Venezuelan armed forces will support a possible non-Chávez head of state. The December 16 elections will provide us with a better idea of what is in the mind of the Venezuelan citizenry and other possible outcomes that might occur in the near future.