Two months after President Hugo Chávez entered a Cuban hospital for cancer treatment, the disturbing prospect of chávismo without Chávez appears increasingly likely.
Chávez’s designated successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is reportedly consolidating control of key government institutions.
“There is Chávismo without Chávismo and they’re proving it right now,” said Diego Moya- Ocampos, a political analyst and former aide in the Attorney General’s office under Chávez in 2000. “If Maduro’s popularity starts to be undermined by economic difficulties, then you might see another chávista leader emerging saying they can do better than him and that’s where problems can arise.”
The Obama administration will insist that “any new elections [in Venezuela] should be democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and transparent and must respect the universal human rights of the Venezuelan people,” said incoming Secretary of State John Kerry.
Anticipating the death of cancer-stricken leader Chávez, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The Venezuelan constitution and the Inter-American Democratic Charter should define the way ahead” and pledged to “support the strengthening of democratic institutions, respect for freedom of expression, rule of law, and the protection of human rights.”
Defamation and intimidation
But recent developments make Maduro the favorite to win any election, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis:
Chávez’s coalition in the National Assembly is just one vote short of the three-fifths majority needed to grant the Venezuelan president powers to pass laws without congressional approval after an opposition deputy switched sides Feb. 5 and the president’s allies won 20 of 23 governorships in regional elections in December.
The regime is also trying to demoralize the democratic opposition through defamation and intimidation.
Recent corruption allegations against opposition deputies are intended to deflect public attention from shortages of staple foods, a declining currency and rampant violent crime, said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.
“They need to position themselves as winners, and at the time go about presenting the opposition [in a light that suggests] it’s going to be defeated in an election,” he told The Associated Press.
After pro-Chávez legislator Claudio Farias assaulted opposition deputy Julio Borges in a corridor of the legislative palace, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabellosaid that “we aren’t going to put handcuffs on our deputies.”
Some analysts believe the Chávista movement will split in the absence of its charismatic leader.
“There’s no indication that Maduro is going to have the same unifying power that Chávez did,” said Gregory Weeks, a professor of Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina.
His absence is also likely to have regional repercussions, says a prominent observer.
“Chávez’s charisma and ruthless political genius fail to explain why he has been able to achieve such regional clout,” writes Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute:
Through a canny use of petrodollars, subsidies to political allies, and well-timed investments, Chávez has underwritten his Bolivarian revolution with cash – and lots of it. But that effective constellation of money and charisma has now come out of alignment, leaving a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.
Given Cuba’s dependence on cheap Venezuelan oil and other subsidies, Havana “will do its utmost to prop up Maduro,” Vargas Llosa writes for Foreign Policy:
“Chávez’s chosen man will never be a revered figure –his talents as a politician are lackluster — but with Havana’s backing and control of the money funneled to the region’s leaders, he will retain some of Chávez’s stature,” he suggests.