Reports that Hugo Chávez is suffering from an incurable malignancy (he also has cancer) are prompting speculation about his ability to contest this year’s presidential election and the prospects for the country’s revived democrats.
“After years of being rudderless, Venezuela’s opposition …finally has a leader,” says Juan Nagel, a professor of economics at Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile and co-editor of Caracas Chronicles.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the populous Miranda province, has emerged as the opposition’s sole presidential candidate after easily defeating four rivals in primaries that attracted three million voters.
“That he did so without providing details on his vision makes his victory all the more remarkable,” Nagel writes at AmericasQuarterly.org. “Chávez claims he is a ‘rancid right-winger,’ but past writings from some of his top advisers support Capriles Radonski’s claim that he is instead a progressive follower of the model of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.”
The return of the incumbent president’s cancer is likely to highlight the contrast between the young, energetic Capriles and the “suddenly very mortal” Chávez, analysts suggest. (“To my opponent, as a son of God, I wish a successful operation, a swift recovery and a long life,” Capriles tweeted on Wednesday.)
“It certainly gives Capriles, a young, healthy-looking guy a chance to communicate to Venezuelan voters a comparative image to an aging and ailing leader who represents the past and not the future of Venezuela,” says Riordan Roett, the head of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Affairs.
“The contrast between the two couldn’t be more dramatic: a young, telegenic Capriles against Chávez, who looks worse all the time,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “This can only help the opposition on the media front.”
The Chávista forces are unlikely to be able to find or promote an alternative candidate with the ability to match the incumbent’s political prowess.
“There is nobody with the innate charisma of Chávez that can attract the poor,” said Roett. “Chávismo without a charismatic leader will be a spent force in a short period of time.”
The regime will need to confront one of the debilitating effects of autocratic politics: dependence on a single charismatic leader.
“Venezuela is living with the unsettling effects of prolonged, one-man rule,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “Anything can happen.”
The president’s condition also highlights the inherent weakness of a government in which Chávez’s power is unrestricted and uncontested, according to Demetrio Boersner, a Caracas-based political analyst. “All the powers are concentrated in his hands, so if he’s out, then the whole system starts to weaken,” he said.
Shifter predicts “a fierce power struggle and jockeying for position” within the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
“It creates a very complicated and uncertain political situation that I think helps the opposition in a really unprecedented way,” said Arnson. “It’s Chávez and his personality and his charisma that have held his movement together.”
But an opposition victory is far from pre-ordained.
Chávez “remains popular with millions of poorer Venezuelans,” The Economist notes:
The rising world oil price brought a return to economic growth in Venezuela in 2011 after two years of recession. Armed with extra revenue from oil, Mr Chávez has launched a new non-contributory pension and child benefit, costing a total of $2.3 billion a year. He has also begun crash programmes to build houses and create jobs.
Nor is Mr Chávez’s continued ill health necessarily good for the MUD. News of his cancer last year prompted a sympathy boost in the president’s opinion-poll ratings. That may now be repeated, though on a smaller scale. Opposition politicians know from bitter experience that fighting an election that focuses on the figure of the president is a losing proposition. Mr Capriles may find it harder to centre the campaign on the economy and governance.
There are three scenarios of what may happen in Venezuela in coming months: says Andres Oppenheimer:
Scenario 1: Nothing changes. …Chávez could win, if — in addition to around-the-clock propaganda and intimidation campaigns — his government benefits from a big rise in oil prices from a potential Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. That would give the Venezuelan government extra cash to hand out to voters…Also, the “pity effect” …. could help Chávez..
• Scenario 2: Chávez appoints a successor. ………Cuba, which relies heavily on Chávez’s petrodollars and is most concerned about maintaining the status quo in Venezuela, will be the first to recommend its own Fidel-to-Raúl succession model to Chávez, in which Chávez would remain a largely behind-the-scenes “father of the revolution.”
Still, without Chávez’s constant presence in the media, his successor could lose the October elections. Polls show that Chávez is much more popular than his notoriously corrupt and inept government…..
• Scenario 3: A military intervention, or “the Egyptian scenario.” Chávez becomes incapacitated or dies in coming months, and the likelihood of an opposition victory in the October elections moves the Venezuelan military to create a provisional government, claiming that the country has become ungovernable.
“To avoid losing power, the military may claim that the country is on the verge of a supposed civil war and intervene,” says Caracas-based consultant and pollster Alfredo Keller. “If Chávez disappears, an Egyptian scenario is highly possible.”
That scenario arguably became more likely after Chávez recently promoted former soldier Diosdado Cabello to lead the ruling PSUV party and appointed as new defense minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a veteran military figure who features on a U.S. government blacklist for alleged collusion in drug trafficking.
“It could very well be that this is going to be a military-brokered succession, not unlike Egypt,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “At the first sign of chaos we could see the military indirectly or even explicitly playing a big role.”
“The key question is whether [Chávez] is beginning to pay attention to advice from all those forces, ranging from family members to political operators, telling him to come forward with a succession plan,” Corrales said.
Whatever scenario transpires, it is likely to be an ugly campaign.
Chávista leaders have described Capriles as “a low-life pig” and “loser” who is a stooge of the United States.
And that’s the mild stuff.
The day after Capriles, a devout Roman Catholic, won the opposition primaries, the state-controlled Web site of Venezuelan National Radio published a feature, The Enemy Is Zionism, which described Capriles as a descendant of Jews. (his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland.)
“In order to understand the interests embodied” by Capriles, it argued, “it’s important to know what is Zionism, the Israeli ideology that he sneakily represents. .?.?. It is, without doubt, an ideology of terror, of the most putrefied sentiments of humanity; its supposedly patriotic impetus is based in greed.”
“Zionism,” it concludes, “is owner of the majority of the financial institutions of the planet, controls almost 80 percent of the world economy and virtually all of the communications industry, in addition to maintaining decision-making positions within the U.S. Department of State and European powers.”
The vitriolic attack is an indication of the regime’s recognition that it is vulnerable, writes Time’s Tim Padgett, and further evidence of one of Chávez’s uglier character traits:
……when he’s politically shaken he can get sophomorically vulgar, as he did in 2007 when he called an opposition referendum victory “a piece of shit”– and as he did last week when he called out Capriles on state-run television. “You have a pig’s tail, a pig’s ears, you snort like a pig,” Chávez said, addressing Capriles. “You are a low-life pig.” He also questioned the unmarried Capriles’ masculinity, calling him “Mrs. Bourgeois.”
Never mind authoritarian learning, democratic movements could take a cue from Venezuela.
“The opposition Capriles now heads has learned lessons that might benefit some of the revolutionaries of the Middle East,” the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl recently noted:
It tried and failed to oust Chávez with mass demonstrations and strikes; it foolishly boycotted elections it believed would be unfair; it indulged in endless internal quarrels. The result was the entrenchment of a strongman who has thoroughly wrecked what was once Latin America’s richest country and who now presides over the highest inflation and murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, shortages of basic goods and power, and a drug-trafficking industry whose kingpins include the defense minister.