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Will Chavismo survive without Chávez?
Things are in a ferment in the big country to the southeast of Morant Point, as its ailing president battles cancer and a lung infection in Havana while his supporters and opponents engage in a battle of their own in the public forum. Hugo Chávez was elected to a third six-year term as president of Venezuela last October. But he has had to put his duties aside for the past month to undergo emergency surgery in Cuba.
His troubles with cancer began in June 2011 while on a visit to Cuba. By the end of that month he revealed that the doctors had removed a tumour. The next month he returned home only to go back to hospital for more anti-cancer treatment. By February of last year, the cancer had returned and he went back to Cuba for more surgery.
He was well enough to campaign, but in early December he admitted that he needed yet another round of treatment and designated his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, to succeed him in case he could no longer lead the country. The surgery had complications and then he developed a severe lung infection which complicated matters further.
Unlike our political system, where the winners take power right after being elected, in Venezuela you have to wait three months to take the oath of office. This was supposed to happen on Thursday, but with Chávez obviously unable to travel, the whole situation escalated from a vigorous simmer to a rolling boil. Vice-president Maduro sent a letter to Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, on Tuesday advising that Chávez would not be able to take part in the inauguration according to schedule.
The National Assembly became the scene of energetic, feverish debate, with the Opposition crying foul, warning of what they described as a “constitutional coup” which would destabilise the nation. The head of the Opposition Justice First Party, Julio Borges asked, “Who is governing Venezuela?” while members of the ruling party waved copies of the constitution as they chanted “Chávez, Chávez Chávez!”
Cabello told the legislature: “There is no power vacuum in Venezuela, there is a vacuum of the opposition,” adding that Chávez could stay away as long as he wants. The assembly then voted to delay the ceremony. The matter ended up before the Supreme Court in a case brought by a lawyer friendly to the regime. The president of the court, Luisa Estella Morales, announced that the inauguration could be performed before the Supreme Court at a time and place to be specified.
The man Chávez defeated, Henrique Capriles, condemned the court’s decision, saying “Institutions should not respond to the interests of a government”. Divisive as the situation is inside Venezuela, that’s not the case in the region. The Opposition has complained to the Organisation of American States but that’s not going anywhere, as regional powers like Brazil and the United States appear leery of condemning the Government’s actions as Capriles has demanded.
Washington has had a rocky relationship with Chávez but is staying out of the legal debate. While the White House and the State Department would like to see him go, they’re not about to be seen pushing him.
For his part, Chávez’s nominated deputy and other Government insiders also want a rapprochement with Washington. First off, they have to settle the matter of diplomatic representation. The US embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since Chávez rejected the person President Obama nominated after accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela’s Government.
In retaliation, the State Department revoked the visa of Venezuela’s representative. Just last week, Maduro emphasised that while the two countries have “great ideological and political differences”, normal relations are possible based on mutual respect.
Brazil supports the Government’s actions and the presidents of Uruguay, Bolivia and Nicaragua joined a pro-Government rally in front of the presidential palace, Miraflores, in Caracas on Thursday. The huge crowd was a sea of red, the colour of the Bolivarian Revolution movement. There were posters all over stating ‘Now with Chávez more than ever’. Argentina’s president flew to Havana yesterday to be by Chávez’s side.
On Wednesday, Maduro chaired a meeting with 19 Latin American and Caribbean leaders at which they discussed issues concerning PetroCaribe. As you are aware, Chávez created that agreement in 2005 to sell petroleum to Caribbean countries at preferential rates, an action which has done wonders for Venezuela’s influence in the region.
Any change to this agreement would be felt almost immediately from Havana through Kingston right along the chain of islands as well on the Central American mainland. With all that oil money at his disposal, Chávez has done less than a stellar job of improving things in his nation of almost 30 million. Widespread inefficiency and disorganisation plague the country, and the infrastructure is weak. Inflation runs at around 25 per cent and Venezuela now owes ten times as much as when Chávez took over.
Even so, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has been as much about ideas as about material gains, and he has done much to foster a sense of national consciousness among the once ignored masses. Normally a constant presence at public events and on the airwaves, Chávez has been absent for weeks and hasn’t even said exactly what kind of cancer he has and just how serious it is.
This has led to speculation about whether he is actually alive and that his comrades are using the opportunity to arrange matters to suit themselves. It’s almost certain that he won’t be well enough to be sworn in, but even if he is, he will be a mere shadow of his once ubiquitous and bombastic self.
Chávez’s 14-year reign has eroded what were already weak national institutions and his passing from the scene—either by death or retirement—will leave an unholy mess. At this point no one knows whether his associates will be able to keep things together or whether the Opposition forces will be able to forge a workable alternative.
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