Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez is fighting for his life, says vice president Nicolas Maduro, his designated successor, reviving rumors that the authoritarian populist is either dead or close to it.
“Among his opponents, everyone has a conspiracy theory about the reasons for concealing the President’s true state of health. There are rumors of every variety, including those that draw on fears of the sort of military coup that has haunted Venezuela’s history,” Boris Muñoz reports from Caracas.
Why does the government keep pretending that Chávez is in charge? he asks:
“The only explanation is that the small troika that is managing the situation got emotional about declaring Chávez unfit to be President, which ought to happen sooner rather than later in this electoral scenario,” a government insider told me. I asked what he meant by “emotional”. “The high spheres of government are like those families where the brothers and sisters don’t get along, but they love, respect, and fear their father. Though the opposition thinks they have no feelings, I think the high government leaders are really confused and upset over the imminent death of their political father. Their pain and uncertainty unite them. But they also stop them from seeing the future.”
The latest rumors coincide with speculation about a possible military coup, a prospect dismissed by regime leaders addressing a chávista rally.
“Today the people and the armed forces are more united than ever, like a fist of the fatherland,” said Maduro, who warned the opposition not to “come with little stories that we are fighting.”
The vice president’s chief rival, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello is a former army captain who is seen as close to the military as Maduro is to Cuba. But he also denied any rift. ”We are brothers of the fatherland, we are sons of Chávez,” he told the rally.
The Obama administration will insist that in the event of Chávez’s death, “any new elections 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.
But uncertainty about his condition is feeding the uncertainty, say observers.
“Until Chávez says ‘I quit,’ Maduro’s authority will be weak,” said Fausto Masó, a Venezuelan journalist and political analyst:
To shore up its position, the team of rivals has gone on attack, denouncing opposition representatives in the National Assembly as corrupt and talking about sending them to jail. Simultaneously, the government has threatened to increase state control over the corporations and small businesses that are the main source of the opposition’s funding.
“The transition has already begun in Venezuela, and the election campaign has also begun,” said Tulio Hernandez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “The transition has also begun in people’s heads. Sometimes, there are mistakes among government spokespeople, who start to speak of Chávez in the past tense.”
The chávista leadership has targeted attacks against Henrique Capriles Radonski, “the opposition leader who lost to Chávez last October, but who got closer to the Presidency than any other opponent,” Muñoz writes for The New Yorker:
According to a recent poll, most of the population supports the government and would stand behind Maduro if he has to replace Chávez as President. The same polls also show Capriles as the only opposition leader who stands a chance—however small—against Maduro.
The main problem for Capriles is that he’s doesn’t have all the other opposition leaders behind him. The opposition’s dilemma is whether to confront chávismo in the streets, as it has previously, or peel off disappointed chávistas, which is the strategy Capriles prefers. Although Capriles never risks much, he has an excellent sense of political timing and opportunity.
Under Chávez-style socialism, the government routinely seizes broadcasting stations, banks, food factories, and other private property. In the Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, no country scores worse for property rights than Venezuela—even Cuba (!) scores higher in that category. ….Caracas dramatically ramped up money creation and government spending ahead of Venezuela’s October 2012 presidential election, to help guarantee another term for the ailing Chávez.
The numbers really are quite astounding: “In 2012 alone, the money supply expanded 62 percent while public spending grew 52 percent,” notes former Venezuelan trade minister Moisés Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Chávez’s legacy will be decidedly illiberal, says a former admirer.
There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror.
Chávez praised Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi as brothers but restrained the bloodshed, settling for selective intimidation and thuggery. Repression was usually a last resort – when oil revenues, charisma and political skill were not enough for him to get his way.
Instead, Chávez’s critics faced a range of less blatant threats, says Carroll, author of the forthcoming book, Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez:
The first weapon was humiliation. Intelligence agents passed recordings of intercepted calls to a chávista television show, The Razorblade, which would gleefully spin and broadcast them, to an accompaniment of animal noises.
The second weapon was disqualification from running for office. Leopoldo López, a potential presidential rival descended from Simón Bolívar’s sister, was accused of corruption, tangled in legal knots and sidelined.
The third was emasculation. Antonio Ledezma was elected the metropolitan mayor of Caracas but became irrelevant. A red-shirted mob occupied the city hall, with police complicity, and Chávez transferred the mayor’s powers to a newly created city authority run by an apparatchik….