Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez died after a two year battle with cancer, his deputy Nicolás Maduro announced on Tuesday. The news could plunge the Latin American country into political turmoil after fourteen years of Chávez’ rule.
The Venezuelan leader, who was elected to a fourth term in October of last year, underwent several cancer treatments in recent years in both his home country and Cuba, its closest ally in the region.
Because Chávez could not be inaugurated on January 10 as scheduled, Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, rather than the vice president assumes power. Maduro is the president’s chosen successor, however, and could probably count on stronger support from within the ruling party as well as Cuba. A snap election must be called within the month.
Divisions within the opposition could play into the ruling party’s hands. Moderates and radicals lined up behind the former governor of the northern state of Miranda Henrique Capriles Radonski, a liberal centrist, in the last presidential election but his inability to oust Chávez strained relations within the coalition.
Another defeat in December, when the opposition won just three out of 23 governorships, and Maduro’s de facto presidency of the country in Chávez’ absence prompted some on the fringes to call for a harder line. Capriles is nevertheless expected to be nominated for the presidency again by a coalition of opposition parties. Maduro has warned Venezuelans of chaos and disunity should his party be voted out of office.
Venezuela’s economy is in dire straits due to its stewardship, however. The nation suffers from regular power outages and rampant corruption and crime. The homicide rate nearly tripled in the last ten years. The public debt rose rapidly especially during Chávez’ last administration, from 26 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to over 50 percent last year. Venezuela’s economic growth rate is the lowest in Latin America while inflation has averaged 23 percent since 2001.
The former president’s populist left-wing policies included the nationalization of previously foreign held industries, like food, oil and steel, as well as the expropriation of private lands. The distribution of oil revenues was placed directly under the executive’s supervision, enabling Chávez to fund lavish campaign promises — and keep Cuba’s similarly central planned economy afloat. Hence Havana’s interest in facilitating a smooth transition of power in Caracas now that Chávez is dead.