What happens if Venezuela’s populist president dies?
“Here’s what the Bolivarian constitution is clear about, if Chávez dies before Jan. 10, then a new presidential election has to be held within 30 days, and during that time the National Assembly President ‘shall take charge of the presidency of the republic,’” writes Time’s Tim Padgett:
Should Chávez somehow be able to return to Venezuela to be sworn in on Jan. 10 but dies during the first four years of his new term, a new election still has to be held within 30 days, but this time his Vice President [Nicolás Maduro - far left] becomes President during the interregnum. Should Chávez die during the last two years of the term, then the Vice President simply completes the term’s lame-duck remainder.
If the Bolivarian succession process sounds convoluted, analysts say it’s meant to be. It keeps the Vice President post relatively weak and therefore discourages any challenge to Chávez’s authoritarian rule from within his United Socialist Party (PSUV) while he’s alive; but it aids the continuance of his left-wing, anti-U.S. revolution if he dies by giving the opposition a paltry 30 days to mount an election campaign.
Still, what Chávez may not have expected, says Stephen Johnson, Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., is that the scenario would play out “at a moment precisely like this one,” when the opposition does have a viable candidate — Henrique Capriles, the centrist governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas — ready to hit the trail again after a relatively respectable effort against Chávez in October.
The January 10 deadline “really matters,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “The moment that you enter into the idea that people can just easily change the inauguration date, you are essentially governing outside of the constitution,” he said. “You are essentially abandoning the democracy.”
Constitutional lawyer Jose Vicente Haro told CNN en Espanol that the inauguration must occur on that day and cannot occur inside the embassy in Cuba because “it is not Venezuelan territory.”
Ultimately, Venezuela’s Supreme Court could be asked to decide, said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center. If Chávez has not returned to Venezuela and is unable to be sworn in on January 10, the National Assembly may be forced to act…. The lawmakers may have no choice but to either declare Chávez permanently absent, which would result in the national assembly president taking over, or temporarily absent.
Whoever succeeds Chávez will inherit an incipient economic crisis that will limit their room for political maneuver, analysts suggest.
Oil-exporting countries rarely face hard currency shortages, but the Chávez regime may be the exception. Mismanagement and lack of investment have decreased oil production. Meanwhile oil revenue is compromised partly because of Chávez’s decision to supply Venezuelans with the country’s most valuable resource at heavily subsidized prices. Thus a large and growing share of locally produced oil is sold domestically at the lowest prices in the world (in Venezuela it costs 25 cents to fill the tank of a mid-sized car).
“Another share of the oil output is shipped abroad to Cuba and other Chávez allies, and to China, which bought oil in advance at deeply discounted prices (apparently the revenue from China has already been spent),” writes Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and former minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela.
The economic crisis is likely to require a period of austerity that will generate a political backlash against Chávez’s successor.
“It’s doubtful that Nicolás Maduro will be able to handle the fury of Venezuelans who fear that their beloved leader’s memory might be betrayed by heartless neoliberalism,” argues Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan political scientist, and founder of Caracas Chronicles:
It’s been a wildly popular and successful strategy, but this kind of spending-led “socialism“ can’t last. For years, Venezuela has been borrowing at credit-card level interest rates. As the country runs out of money and out of people willing to lend it more, the real question is who’s going to be left holding the checkbook when the spending must screech to a halt?
Chávez recently named Maduro, his vice-president and foreign minister, as his chosen heir.
“Many analysts see a potential rift inside Chávismo between Maduro’s more socialist faction and that of the more pragmatic Cabello, who has particularly strong ties to the military and is expected to be re-elected as National Assembly President,” says Padgett:
But George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of an upcoming book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, says Maduro would most likely secure both the PSUV candidacy and a victory over Capriles. “He’s more popular with the Venezuelan grassroots than either Cabello or Capriles,” he says.
Chávez’s death is also likely to be a blow for his authoritarian populist allies in the region, say observers.
“The Bolivarian Alliance – a Chávez brainchild forged to assert regional claims to policy autonomy during the Bush era — is likely to take the strongest hit,” according to Anita Isaacs, a political science professor at Haverford College:
Whereas Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba can be seen as mutually beneficial, there is no similar upside to pouring millions of dollars into other corrupt regimes like those in Ecuador and Nicaragua. Moreover, the pragmatic bloc of Latin American nations led by Brazil offers an increasingly viable alternative to the alliance.
Still, the prospect of armed conflict in Venezuela is real and should not be underestimated. Should political violence ensue, all bets are off on the Latin American front. Rather than play a productive role in the region Venezuela could arouse regional fears of a destabilizing spillover of violence, becoming instead the target of efforts at containment and peace-making.
The Ahmadinejads, Castros and Ortegas of our world could count on a hero’s welcome in Caracas, along with a replica of the Great Liberator’s sword. Saddled with serious problems — and lacking the charisma — Chávez’s heir will probably be hard-pressed to cast the same giant Bolivarian shadow over the international landscape.
Although Maduro has often echoed Chávez’s own antipathy toward the U.S., he has recently indicated a theoretical willingness to consider repairing relations with the U.S and, according some news reports, has discussed the possibility with Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Any rapprochement, however, is likely to be narrow and fraught with tension.
The succession crisis could create opportunities for Venezuela’s democratic opposition and civil society, analysts suggest.
An unwavering commitment to social programs — the popular “misiones” — will be vital, as will pursuing badly needed economic and security reforms. Similarly, a new government should not entirely jettison Chávez’s foreign policy from one day to the next, but should move in a piecemeal fashion. Moderation should steadily fill in for Chávez’s charisma and grandiosity.
“The path forward will require modest, incremental changes and compromise on both sides of a sharply polarized society,” says Shifter, a former Latin America program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Otherwise, there could be a societal backlash, and the prospects for political comity and mending the social fabric will be at risk.”