ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges has an OpEd in The Australian today on what the return of Chavez’s illness might mean for Venezuela.
For those wanting to follow the Maduro/Chavez saga, Americas Quarterly has a good piece on Maduro by Javier Corrales. Quick summary — Corales is definitely a fellow Chavista traveller, but he has a ways to go before he can must the almost automatic widespread support Hugo Chavez enjoys.
If you don’t have a subscription, an earlier version of the text is below.
Venezuela’s looming crisis
Sean W Burges
Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies
at the Australian National University
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign that ended with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s re-election on October 7th, the mercurial Chávez exhibited his trademark ebullience and rhetorical extravagance. Even though he cut back on his public appearances, for the faithful it was easy to believe that his cancer had been completely cured. Now it is starting to look like the naysayers were right and that the cancer Chávez has been fighting since 2011 is terminal. A December 9th special session of Congress was convened to authorize Chávez’s travel to Cuba for emergency surgery this week, which will be his fourth major cancer intervention.
The problem for Venezuelans is that Chávez’s potential health decline and death could throw their country into a very messy political crisis and bitter internecine power struggle within the president’s Bolivarian movement. Worse, this could lead to mass violence in the streets as contending factions battle for power.
Article 232 of the Venezuelan constitution addresses two scenarios directly relevant to Chávez’s illness. First, should an elected president become unable to take the oath of office to start their term, the constitution calls for a new presidential election. Second, new presidential elections must be held if a president dies, resigns or is fired from the presidency within the first four years of their term.
Chávez appears to be planning for the enactment of Article 232. He made a pre-surgery whistle stop return to Caracas last weekend to unambiguously name Nicolas Maduro as his vice president and heir, calling on Venezuelans to support his candidacy should a new presidential election be required. In effect Chávez is trying to exercise a practice that Mexicans under the 71-year authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party knew as the “dedazo”, or the touch of the president’s finger to anoint the chosen successor. The question in Venezuela is whether Chávez’s finger will be strong enough to reach out from his grave.
The extent to which Chávez dominates Venezuela makes little sense in a political context such as Australia’s. Everything in Venezuela is about the president. Whether loved or hated, he is talked about all the time and in relation to almost any subject. Within government and public policy circles no decision is made without the almost direct approval of Chávez. In the public and private sphere his influence is all-pervasive and unrelenting. Its dominating nature is particularly notable during elections. Although the actual act of voting is laudably free and fair in Venezuela, the extent to which Chávez’s popularly created cult of personality imbues everything means that conditions for the electoral campaign are massively tilted against his opponents.
It is also the strength of Chávez’s personality that keeps internecine bickering within the Bolivarian movement under wraps. Although Chávez is explicitly naming Maduro, a former bus driver and grass roots general for the Bolivarian movement, as his successor and protector of the revolution, there is no wider consensus or actual agreement that the vice president should assume the reins of power. In particular, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello harbors his own presidential ambitions. Cabello also brings his own revolutionary credibility, which stretches back to active participation in Chávez’s 1992 failed coup attempt and successive ministerial posts over the last decade.
For Chávez the worst case scenario is that his two lieutenants will engage in a bitter struggle for power that will split the leftist vote and leave the way open for victory by Henrique Capriles, who garnered 46% of the vote in last October’s presidential ballot. With the dominating force of Chávez’s personality interred this is also a very likely scenario.
The implications for Venezuelans are deeply worrying. A complex system of corruption and patronage has arisen in the shadows of Chávez’s hyper-centralized rule, some of it with very deep links into the military and parts drifting into the shady world of narcotrafficking. A new presidential election thus becomes about more than who holds the country’s highest office. It suddenly becomes about who control of the real levers of economic power in the country by preventing close scrutiny of activities in the shadows. This makes the election a winner takes all game that no side can afford to lose.
Sadly this explosive cocktail of conflicting vested interests may prove to be Chávez’s lasting legacy, not the many laudable social programs he launched and the efforts he devoted to making Venezuela’s poor majority realize they have rights and can have a voice in the political system. Chávez’s death, when it comes, will put a severe strain on the Venezuelan political system and force complex and painful negotiations to reformulate how the country operates. There is a very real, but still avoidable possibility that these negotiations will take the form of violent street protests and gangland-style score settling, making Venezuela an even more violent place. The saving grace here is that an authoritarian retrogression is not a real possibility due to severe regional pressure to keep the Americas democratic, which is ironically due to concerns with the type of democracy that Chávez sought to build in Venezuela.