Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has arrived in Cuba to undergo surgery for an aggressive form of cancer, “leaving behind a nation hanging on the outcome of his treatment,” The New York Times reports:
Chávez’s supporters prayed for his recovery as opponents tried to adjust to what could be a vastly changed political landscape two months after an electoral defeat left them demoralized and scrambling to keep from losing more ground…. Chávez named a political successor, asking his followers to throw their support behind Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro is “considered to belong to a radical leftist wing of Chávez’s movement that is closely aligned with Cuba’s communist government,” notes one observer.
He may inherit political power, “but he definitely can’t inherit the charisma” of Chávez, said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster who heads the Venezuelan firm Datanalisis:
He said that during his nearly 14 years in office Chávez has been the glue that has held together groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions… Maduro faces monumental challenges in trying to stand in for his mentor and hold together the president’s diverse “Chávismo” movement, while also coping with economic problems that are weighing on the government.
“Internal divisions could make the revolution unstable in the future,” Leon said.
The status quo is unsustainable, according to a former Venezuelan trade minister and leading analyst.
“Chávismo without Chávez can only exist for a short time,” said Moises Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “It all depends on oil prices and on what alliances the Chávistas can make.”
Venezuela’s economy grew about 5% this year due to government spending ahead of the October election. But there are growing strains, including an overvalued currency that is causing an acute dollar shortage, hurting the ability of the government to import everything from food to cars. Bolivars in the country’s black market are trading for about 15 per dollar versus an official rate of 4.3.
Most economists had expected the government to devalue the bolivar in January, but that may be postponed if there is the chance of a new election. Either way, economic growth is expected to slow dramatically.
“If oil prices stay relatively high, Chávismo without Chávez is likely to continue,” said Javier Corrales, an expert in Venezuela at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “Populist regimes collapse when they run out of money.”
The country’s democratic opposition is demanding that any successor must secure electoral legitimacy.
“Here in Venezuela, when someone leaves office, the nation has the last word,” said Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential election. “We’re in Venezuela, not Cuba.”
Capriles, the governor of Miranda province, is being challenged by Chávistas in a forthcoming election.
Now with President Chávez naming his successor, the gubernatorial election in Miranda is becoming a test of succession within the opposition over who could potentially have the legitimacy to lead in the post-Chávez era,” notes Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini.
Other observers echo his assessment of the opposition’s prospects.
“For the opposition to have a meaningful chance in an eventual presidential election, “Capriles needs to have an important victory and by an ample margin,” wrote analysts at Citigroup. “Without a big Miranda win, it is difficult to see Mr Capriles having the capacity to unify the opposition the way he did in the previous presidential election.”
Other experts suggest that the Chávista coalition will become more fragile and could even fracture without the cohesive of the president’s personal charisma and popularity.
“You have to ask what’s held things together in Venezuela. … Part of what’s held it together is that Chávez, despite his government’s problems, is somebody who has a tremendous emotional connection and charisma with a lot of Venezuelans,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
“All of the people who are potential successors of Chávez are people who are polarizing and confrontational,” Shifter told CNN. “They’re loyal to Chávez, but they don’t have Chávez’s ability to connect with most Venezuelans.”
According to The Washington Post: Political analyst Vladimir Villegas, who has known Maduro since his adolescence, said the vice president’s experience years ago as a public transit union leader will probably help him in the difficult task of mediating between different groups of Chávez allies…..But Villegas said he thinks Maduro will know how to contain his radicalism for practical purposes.
“The priority will be the preservation of political stability, for which it will be necessary to begin negotiating with internal groups and even with the opposition,” said Villegas, who hosts a radio program. “This situation is going to force him to proceed with caution.”
Maduro has powerful rivals within the ruling party, says the FT’s Benedict Mander:
The main one is considered to be Diosdado Cabello, the president of congress and a former soldier. Mr Cabello is understood to have the support of the army as well as strong links with the “Boligarchs” – the powerful businessmen who have profited from close relations with the government.
With that clear designation of a political heir, Mr Chávez reduced the risk in the short term of chaos resulting from a power struggle between government factions, observers say. But the resurgence of his cancer will still heighten political uncertainty in the coming weeks.
“I don’t think it will be very easy for Maduro because groups that had been repressed will awaken,” said Raul Salazar, a former general who once worked closely with the president. “The power is concentrated for Chávez and if Chávez is there it’s there for him. But once he’s gone, it dilutes.”
The FT outlines three possible scenarios related to the constitutional implications of Chávez’s probable departure:
If the absence happens before Mr Chávez is due to be sworn in on January 10, elections must be held within 30 days. As vice-president, Nicolás Maduro would finish the current period and on January 10, president of congress, Diosdado Cabello, would take over until the elections.
If the absence takes place during the first four years of Mr Chávez’s mandate, elections must also be held within 30 days, with the vice-president taking charge until the vote.
If the absence occurs in the final two years of the mandate, the vice-president would assume the presidency and complete the period.