President’s Illness Casts Doubt on Venezuela’s Political Future

A week before his scheduled inauguration, Hugo Chávez remains in hospital in Cuba.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela meets with members of his cabinet at the Palacio de Miraflores in Caracas, November 15, 2012
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela meets with members of his cabinet at the Palacio de Miraflores in Caracas, November 15, 2012 (Prensa Miraflores/Efrain Gonzalez)

Venezuela faces political uncertainty ahead of a scheduled January 10 inauguration as President Hugo Chávez, who was elected for a fourth term in October of last year, remains in hospital in Cuba and his condition is unknown.

The socialist leader was admitted to hospital last month where he apparently suffered complications from a six hour surgery. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ chosen successor, said on Tuesday that he had spoken with the president twice and that he is “completely conscious of the complexity of his postoperative state.”

Opposition leaders have demanded to hear more details about Chávez’ health, urging the government to tell “the whole truth” about the cancer stricken president’s condition. Chávez hasn’t appeared in public for three weeks. If he can’t be present for his inauguration, the opposition believes there should be new elections.

If Chávez is permanently incapacitated before being sworn in, the speaker of the National Assembly is to assume power and call a new election within thirty days. The post is currently occupied by Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and Vice President Maduro’s likeliest challenger for the leadership of the ruling United Socialist Party.

Cabello can probably count on the army’s support while Maduro is believed to be Cuba’s preferred successor in the event Chávez doesn’t return to power. Neither man seems to enjoy the full support of the Bolivarian militia, a volunteer force, 25,000 strong, loyal to Chávez and pledged to “defend the revolution.”

If there is a power struggle at the top of the ruling party, it might benefit the opposition, led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, the former governor of the northern state of Miranda. Capriles is a liberal but stood for a centrist coalition in October’s election when he won 44 percent of the votes.

Even if Venezuela is economically in dire straits, suffering from regular power outages and high crime rates, Chávez’ incapacitation could just as well win the ruling party enough sympathy votes to ensure a smooth transition.

That’s certainly what Cuba is hoping for. Its economy would probably implode without the massive oil subsidies it receives from Venezuela, writes Juan Carlos Hidalgo at Cato @ Liberty, the libertarian think tank’s blog.

This is why Havana is playing such an active role in deciding who will replace Chávez and how the succession should play out. Other regional allies such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia would also face cutbacks in economic assistance but not big enough to threaten their leaders’ hold on power.