“Supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez alike nervously welcomed the New Year,” AP reports, “left on edge by shifting signals from the government about the Venezuelan leader’s condition three weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba.”
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s designated heir, said in a televised interview in Cuba that Chávez faces “a complex and delicate situation”:
Maduro’s remarks about the president came at the end of an interview in which he praised his government’s programmes at length, recalled the history of the Cuban revolution and touched on what he called the long-term strength of Mr Chávez’s socialist Bolivian Revolution movement. He mentioned that Fidel Castro, former Cuban president had been in the hospital, and praised Cuba.
Maduro is considered to be the leader of the radical, pro-Cuba faction within the politically fragmented Chávista movement.
Roberta S. Jacobson, the senior US State Department official for Latin America, reportedly held a long telephone conversation with Maduro in November, when the possibility of restoring ambassadors was discussed.
Maduro “may be buying time to consolidate his leadership at home,” writes analyst Andreas Oppenheimer:
A hard-liner who is very close to Cuba’s dictatorship, Maduro may have talked to Jacobson to send a message within the polarized Chávista movement that he’s in charge, before any internal power struggle in Venezuela breaks out in the open. Or he may have accepted the U.S. offer to talk at the suggestion of Cuba, whose military regime is terrified about losing Venezuela’s critical subsidies if Chávez dies. The Cubans may have told Maduro: “Make a truce with Washington, because the last thing you need while you resolve internal government power struggles at home is to fight with the Gringos.”
Some observers believe the restoration of full diplomatic relations would be premature. Former US ambassador Roger Noriega cautioned against “legitimizing a narco-authoritarian regime” in Venezuela.
Analysts expect Chávez’s death will be the catalyst for a factional fight within the ruling coalition, setting ideological radicals around Maduro against military nationalists associated with the President of Congress, Diosdado Cabello.
“The struggle for a successor is in full swing. Maduro and Cabello, Chávez’s two potential heirs, represent two opposing strands of Chávismo, his brand of left-wing nationalism,” writes analyst Boris Mu?oz:
Chávismo is a political movement with marked divisions between its military and civilian wings. …. But the civilian-military division reflects an even deeper one based on two differing conceptualizations of the Bolivarian revolution: a nationalist revolution or a socialist one based on the Cuban model.
Maduro … has been the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the past six years and has been an obedient international operator for Chávez. His negotiations have been instrumental in forging alliances with the heterodox regimes of Iran, Syria, Belarus, and the Latin American partners of the Bolivarian revolution—Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua…
Both Cabello and Maduro are loyal to their leader, but many think that Cabello would have no hesitation in forging an alliance between the military and the new Venezuelan oligarchy, distancing himself from Cuba, and avoiding extending socialism à la Castro.
“The military men who were part of Chávez’s original group are socialists but they don’t like Cuba,” Vladimir Gessen, an influential political analyst and former congressman, told Mu?oz. “They pardon Chávez’s relationship with the Castros, because it’s clear that Chávez would never let himself be manipulated by them.”
In Gessen’s analysis, Cabello would set up a militarist government based on the control exercised by the officer class over the Army and the government….. Under the tutelage of Havana, on the other hand, Maduro would intensify the Cuban socialist model, which is rejected by the nationalist military.
“That’s why the sector supporting Cabello would do everything in its power to stop Maduro becoming president,” Gessen said. To Chávistas, this prediction is a fantasy being projected by a political opposition that wants to see Maduro and Cabello pitted against each other, and an end to Chávismo.
“Right now what’s at stake is the survival of the revolution,” an insider told me. “It would be suicidal to split the party. But in the medium term there will be a struggle for power, because over the last fourteen years, Chávez has created everything in his own image. Without him at the helm, conflict between the different military and civilian interest groups will become inevitable.”
The restoration of US-Venezuelan relations should in any case be based on democratic considerations, observers suggest.
“Contrary to what U.S. hard-liners say, there’s nothing wrong with the two countries exploring ways to normalize relations,” writes analyst Andreas Oppenheimer.
“But considering that Venezuelan laws that may require new elections in the event Chávez cannot take office as scheduled on Jan. 10, one can only wish that the Obama administration adds the words ‘democratic process’ to its proposal to improve ties with Venezuela.”