Overriding Venezuela’s constitution to permit President Hugo Chávez to retain power would be “morally unacceptable,” the country’s Catholic Church said today.
But the authoritarian populist’s designated heir insists that Chávez will continue in office even if he is unable to be sworn in, as the constitution requires, on Thursday.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that Chávez shall “continue his functions and the formality of being sworn in can be resolved later by the Supreme Court.”
“It was the clearest indication yet from the government of how it plans to handle the increasingly likely possibility that Mr. Chávez will be unable to return before then from Cuba, where he had cancer surgery last month and is said to be gravely ill,” the New York Times reports.
The democratic opposition may organize street protests if the government ignores the constitutional requirements for the January 10 inauguration.
“People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution,” said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party.
“We are preparing a real campaign, which will involve going to institutions, countries, embassies and organizations outside of the country to let them know that authorities are trying to twist the constitution due to an internal problem.”
By insisting on political continuity, Maduro “is trying to make clear that there is a political will dictated by the president and that he is the heir… because he needs to be recognized as such,” Venezuelan newspaper columnist Luz Mely Reyes told AFP.
Opposition leaders say that would leave a power vacuum that by law should shift authority to an interim leader of the leftist government and trigger fresh elections, a scenario that could end the socialist government that has transformed one of the world’s great oil powers, The Washington Post’s Juan Ferero reports. That is unlikely to happen, however, with the president’s top aides sending strong signals over the weekend that they were scrambling to postpone the inauguration.
“It is a crisis situation that you have an elected leader on his death bed,” said David Smilde, co-editor of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez. “Chávez is very clearly near the end. You can imagine him recovering, but it appears he is on his death bed.”
Maria Corina Machado, a former civil society activist and opposition member of the National Assembly, said it has become clear the inauguration is considered by the government’s ruling circle to be a mere formality.
“Never in 200 years of our history has the destiny of the country been decided outside of the country,” she said. “What they want is to let January 10th pass like it’s any other day, that it is simply a formality because Chávez was reelected.”
“The most-asked question is ‘What will happen January 10?’” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon. “The answer is probably nothing. The status quo will continue.”
Ram?n Guillermo Aveledo, a top opposition official, has demanded the government “tell the truth”. A rising chorus of Venezuelans on Twitter and other social media is calling for the government to offer “proof of life” for Mr Chávez, such as a photograph or video.
If Thursday passes without any formal inauguration ceremony, the Supreme Court could take up the case and issue a ruling in the weeks ahead. But analysts say it is unlikely to rule against the government position.
“The courts, and specifically the Supreme Court, are absolutely, unconditionally, without fail, totally faithful to Chávez,” said Antonio Canova, a law professor at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello.
“For the Chávista movement it is fundamental that if Maduro is to be the candidate in presidential elections because of Chávez’s exit, that he do so from the position of head of state or some advantageous position, with an aura of power and control over all the institutions,” said Leon, the head of the polling firm Datanalisis.
There is little the opposition can do “to defend itself against an all-powerful government, that is armed, rich and in control of the country’s institutions.”
Under Chávista rule Venezuela has witnessed “a drastic erosion of the separation of powers, accompanied by an inevitable concentration of power in the executive branch,” writes analyst Maxwell Cameron. “The temptation to play fast and loose with the constitution will be high.”
Chávez has “built a formidable apparatus of clientelism and patronage politics,” notes Cameron, organizer ofthe Andean Democracy Research Network, which monitors democratic trends in the region. Nevertheless, ……
The deepest crisis that Chávismo faces, however, is not governmental or even constitutional. Although the changes introduced by Mr. Chávez over 13 years in office have been deep and in many respects irreversible, the extreme personalism of his rule raises the prospect that the entire Boliviarian revolution could unravel without the force of his personality to keep followers in awe and opponents at bay.
Yet the pro-Cuban vice-president lacks Chávez’s charisma and capacity to unite the disparate factions of a fractious movement, observers suggest.
“Maduro’s main characteristic is his close relationship to Chávez,” said Aníbal Romero, a retired political science professor from Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. “He’s always trying to be close to him, be seen with him.”
Maduro is hardly ever seen working his way through crowds. His voice has croaked at times while he tries to deliver impassioned speeches, and he has been caught in recent TV interviews glancing down at note cards. Mr. Chávez has nearly 3.9 million followers on Twitter. Mr. Maduro doesn’t have an account.
Maduro is seen to have the closest ties of any of Mr. Chávez’s inner circle to Cuba and the Castro regime. Diplomats also say the Foreign Ministry under Mr. Maduro has solidified ties with China, Russia and Iran.
“He’s a guy that you can talk to, but whether there will be any agreement, that’s another story,” said one foreign envoy to Venezuela.
A succession struggle would likely pit pro-Cuban radical leftist factions against military-nationalist elements within the ruling coalition.
“Indeed, despite Chávez’s stated wish that his followers should throw their support behind Maduro if he is forced to leave power, the former trade unionist has competition,” writes the FT’s Benedict Mander:
The main rival of Mr Maduro, who started out as a bus driver and is known to enjoy the favor of Cuba’s Communist government, is considered to be Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who has the support of the military and is well-connected with Chávista business magnates. If Mr Chávez cannot be inaugurated for his next six-year term, Mr Cabello would be the interim president, due to his re-election as president of congress on Saturday.
Whoever prevails would inherit a country facing a range of intractable problems – not least, an increasingly fragile economy. While Mr Chávez sprayed money at his problems, as he presided over a 10-fold rise in oil prices over the past decade, his successor may not be so lucky.
“This kind of spending-led socialism can’t last,” argues Francisco Toro, a prominent opposition commentator.
Cabello “has been making his own play for the top spot,” notes analyst Mary Anastasia O’Grady:
Cuba recognized the danger and last week moved to resolve the problem. When the top leadership flocked to Havana, it was ostensibly to be near the cancer-stricken Chávez. The real reason for the trip may have had little to do with praying at the comandante’s bedside. On Saturday El Nuevo Herald reported that sources told it Cuba has been trying to fashion a Venezuelan “junta” that would pull the various factions together and preserve Chávismo.
Both Cabello and Maduro are “potential leaders bearing plenty of anti-American, anti-democratic baggage,” writes Heritage analyst Ray Walser:
If snap presidential elections are held in the coming weeks, they will not necessarily favor the democratic opposition, especially if the Chávistas preserve their unity. While the likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda, appears more popular than either Maduro or Cabello, his ability to deliver an electoral victory is still in doubt. An emotional hangover following Chávez’s death promises to continue in the fallen leader’s footsteps, and an unfair electoral process might easily give a decisive edge to Chávez’s successor.
Whoever succeeds Chávez will inherit an economic crisis that will constrain their room for political maneuver, analysts suggest.
“Chávez has bequeathed the nation an economic crisis of historic proportions,” said Moisés Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and former minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela.
Venezuela continues to hurtle toward a constitutional chasm, says Walser:
While there are reports of conversations between U.S. officials and the Venezuelans about restoring ambassadors, it is important to remember that deeds, rather than mere words, count. Changes in Venezuela’s foreign policy and security behavior will not likely occur until after Venezuela has crossed into the post-Chávez era.
Former U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro predicts that “a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future.”