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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's ill health* continues to place question marks over the future political stability of the Bolivarian Republic, rekindling concerns that instability, power struggle and the possible out-break of violence could once again be on the horizon.
|*This article was written in January 2013, but the assessment presented here remains prescient|
After weeks of speculation about the true state of the Venezuelan President's health, the Venezuelan Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the postponement of Mr Chávez's inauguration for a new term in office is legal. The decision followed an earlier announcement by the Venezuelan National Assembly approving a last minute request by Mr Chávez to suspend his inauguration for a fourth successive six-year term , scheduled to take place today (Thursday 10 January). Mr Chávez, who was re-elected in October 2012 after securing 54 per cent of the vote, has not been seen in public for almost a month having reportedly suffered from a respiratory infection after undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba on 11 December; his fourth round in the last eighteen months.
Despite yesterday's ruling, opposition politicians are claiming that Mr Chávez's current mandate expires on 10 January and that if he is unable to attend the scheduled swearing-in ceremony then, in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution, a new election should be held within thirty days with power passing in the interim to the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.
Many close to Chávez - such as Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who Mr Chávez endorsed as his chosen successor at the end of last year - have nevertheless insisted that the inauguration is a mere formality for the incumbent leader and can be put off until a so far unspecified later date. On his return last week from a trip to Cuba to visit the recovering president, Mr Maduro is reported to have said that, 'The president right now is president...the formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court'. This sentiment has also been reiterated by Cilia Flores, Venezuela's current Attorney General and wife of Vice-President Maduro, who is reported to have said that Chávez does not need to be sworn in on 10 January to begin his new term. Yet, irrespective of contrasting interpretations over whether or not the postponement of the ceremony does indeed constitute a violation of the Venezuelan constitution, one thing appears increasingly clear: despite the President's recent electoral victory which granted Mr Chávez a renewed mandate until 2019, the Bolivarian revolution's longevity post- Chávez is likely to be put to the test somewhat sooner than was expected.
Venezuela After Chávez
Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution clearly states that if the president is incapacitated and deemed unfit to govern within the first four years of a six-year term, then power should immediately be assumed the head of the National Assembly - with a new presidential election having to be called within thirty days. Should this happen during the final two years of a presidency, power would instead automatically fall to the vice-president who would then serve out the remainder of the term as the acting-head of state. With so much at stake, the resulting power struggle that could ensue if another presidential election were to be called during the first four years of Mr Chávez 's new term may well lead to violence which was expected, but narrowly avoided last October. Now, as then, there are concerns that the several armed militia that exist in the country - and even the Venezuelan military -- might enter the fray.
Should such a scenario unfold, those traditionally loyal to Chávez may attempt to consolidate their own positions of strength in the next chapter in Venezuela's political history. Vice President Maduro would now be the obvious and likely candidate to replace Mr Chávez. He is a moderate yet loyal Chavista who amongst other roles previously served as Foreign Minister and who enjoys a great deal of support within the ruling party (the PSUV) and among trade unions.
His main internal challenger could be National Assembly Head, Diosdado Cabello, who famously stood alongside Chávez in the 1992 coup attempt. Despite having recently denied rumours of a split within the PSUV and projecting instead a unified front with Mr Maduro following a visit by the pair to see Mr Chávez in Cuba, Mr Cabello still leads a powerful faction on the right of the party and has strong ties to the Venezuelan military. Influence here would no doubt give him significant clout should the PSUV fragment and internal power struggles ensue. Other members of the PSUV, who may use Chávez's absence to strengthen their own positions within the administration, include Chávez's older brother, Adán Chávez, who currently sits as governor of their home state of Barinas and enjoys strong political support from Cuba. It is also not inconceivable that Venezuela's former Vice President, Elías Jaua may also seek to take on a return to a more front-line role within a new administration despite having been side-lined by the president in his latest Cabinet reshuffle.
Should Chávez die suddenly, it is not unlikely that competing individuals within the PSUV could also attempt to instigate major unrest on the streets of Venezuela using politicised armed groups loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution in order to declare a state of emergency that could be used to postpone a new election or reject an undesirable result. Alternatively, such groups may even take to the streets of their own accord. Of particular concern are the Colectivos - a group based in the 23 de Enero district of Caracas - and the 'National Bolivarian Militia' another armed civilian group, often referred to as the president's 'private army'.
The Venezuelan military would also undoubtedly have a pivotal role to play. At present, there is no guarantee that the military, traditionally loyal to Chávez, might not use the passing of the president as an opportunity to sever its ties with the PSUV. Instead they may use the attempt to enforce its own rule over the country, rather than risk any changes to the status quo under which a number of senior ranking officers hold prominent and privileged state positions. Within such an environment it is not unrealistic to envisage widespread disorder and a complete breakdown in law enforcement.
The outlook does not look good for the opposition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática - MUD) who, following electoral defeat at the end of last year also suffered heavy losses at state governorship elections in December where it won only three out of twenty-three states. Even if emergency elections were to be held in the near future their prospects for success do not appear to be great; not least because of their lack of an obvious presidential candidate other than the Henrique Capriles whose recent loss to Mr Chávez in the 2012 presidential race may have discredited his candidacy in the eyes of many opposition supporters.
On the international stage, a change of leadership in Venezuela could also have a number of profound consequences. For example, should violence break out it could have severe implications for regional stability, especially if Venezuelan oil production is affected and a full blown humanitarian crisis unfolds. Consequences could include violence spilling over into Colombia, something which could inadvertently have a detrimental effect on the Colombian government's current peace process with the FARC (a process to which the Venezuelan government are a guarantor). Cuba, which is subsidised by Venezuelan oil to the tune of around $3.5 billion a year, could also expect to face severe shortages.
The unfolding political situation in Venezuela is also likely to be being watched closely by other Latin American countries that have benefited from the help of Chávez's 'twenty-first century socialism' agenda. Without Chávez, a number of the initiatives that he has championed, namely subsidised oil sales and other initiatives aimed at facilitating greater regional integration could also lose momentum and perhaps, in the case of the latter, become increasingly irrelevant without the charisma and personal drive of Mr Chávez. Most notable amongst these could be the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) - an international co-operation organisation, whose membership includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador Venezuela and others, which was founded by Mr Chávez and is based on the idea of creating greater social, political and economic integration throughout the region.
However, if a political transition were to take place peacefully a number of more positive trends might also occur, particularly in relation to Venezuela's international relations. Central among these could be a re-characterisation of the Bolivarian Republic's relationship with the US. At present Mr Chávez is probably the most vocal critic of US foreign policy in the region, despite the fact that the US is the single largest consumer of Venezuelan oil - the commodity which has almost singlehandedly financed the social welfare programmes which comprise Mr Chávez's Bolivarian revolution. Under new leadership, however, it is not inconceivable to imagine that we might see a softening of relations between the two countries in the period ahead - especially if a new Venezuelan president was to adopt a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy than that pursued under Mr Chávez.
While little is really known about the true state of President Chávez's health, the prospects for his being able to see his new term in office through to 2019 does not currently look good. Venezuelans will therefore have to face up to the fact that the Bolivarian revolution may, sooner rather than later, be put to the test of having to go on without its founder at its helm. Whether or not Chávismo (Chávez's personal brand of left-wing populism) will survive without Chávez therefore still remains to be seen, although given the temperamental nature of his illness, this could easily change at any moment.