The recent release of  a governmental decree bearing Hugo Chavez’s signature  (it named former vice president Elias Jaua as the country’s new foreign minister) is looking more and more like it will not the effect its promulgators, one imagines, desired. As is well known by now, the Venezuelan president has been in a Cuban hospital since mid-December, recuperating from an operation to treat his returning cancer. The procedure and ensuing complications ensured his absence from the presidential inauguration, scheduled for January 10. Chavez was re-elected for a new six-year presidential term (putatively lasting from 2013 to 2019) on October 2012. The fact that his signature has appeared in a decree while the outspoken head of state has yet to appear in public (i.e. via a televised statement or even an audio recording) for weeks sends mixed signals about his health status and will inevitably promulgate more rumors.
Though seemingly unlikely, there is always the possibility that Chavez could recuperate from his current dire condition, return to Caracas, and assume power once again. This is important to keep in mind due to the often-cryptic updates coming out of Havana and Caracas, which are keeping the whole hemisphere at the threshold of publishing the Venezuelan leader’s obituary. A similar situation occurred in December, when a tide of rumors flowing through social media pushed the story that Chavez had already died – and it’s still unclear what the actual impetus for the reports came from. Venezuelan officials had to publicly declare that this was false.
It is understandable that interested parties at every level — from Chavez’s family to Venezuela’s government, citizenry and political opposition to powers beyond his country’s borders — are anxious for news about his health (though their hopes and fears connected to this question most likely differ). The Venezuelan government has been quite successful at treating Chavez’s status as a state secret for the past couple of years, to the point that it is still unclear exactly what kind of cancer he has. With that said, this tactic is slowly beginning to haunt the interim government of Vice President Nicolas Maduro. For example, Venezuelan political opposition parties are beginning to put more pressure on Caracas for information on the president’s health and to make clear, in a worst case-scenario, the timeline for presidential succession (namely new elections) if Chavez cannot return to rule. Recently, Henrique Capriles (who ran against Chavez in the October presidential elections), took another step on the offensive and declared that “if the President can sign decrees, I ask for him to appear [in public ….] because there is a lack of government in Venezuela.”
As noted, there is always the possibility, however slim, that Chavez could eventually recuperate and retake control of his nation. Even so, it is safe to say that it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to govern through 2019, especially if his cancer reappears in the near future. In other words, it is perfectly clear that the discussion regarding succession (including the possibility of new presidential elections) will have to happen in Venezuela. Nevertheless, the end of the Chavez presidency may not occur as soon as some people may think – and that era he inaugurated in regional geopolitics will last longer than many may hope.