Over the holidays, Venezuelans continued to receive increasingly grim news regarding the health of President Hugo Chavez. Current Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro rushed to Havana and reported back that Chavez had suffered “new complications” and that the President remains in a “delicate” condition following his fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11.
It now seems increasingly unlikely that Chavez will have recovered enough to be sworn in on January 10 for his next six-year term. This opens up competing constitutional scenarios that could include postponement of Chavez’s swearing-in, his resignation, or an issuance of a certification of permanent disability. The latter two cases would trigger new elections within 30 days.
Venezuela’s political future hinges on preserving unity within the ranks of Chavez’s potential successors and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro, named successor by Chavez in December, is considered to be ideologically aligned with the revolutionaries in the Chavista ranks and reportedly favored by the Castro regime in Cuba.
Maduro’s nearest party rival is an ex-military officer and president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who must gain re-election on January 5. Both are potential leaders bearing plenty of anti-American, anti-democratic baggage.
If snap presidential elections are held in the coming weeks, they will not necessarily favor the democratic opposition, especially if the Chavistas preserve their unity. While the likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda, appears more popular than either Maduro or Cabello, his ability to deliver an electoral victory is still in doubt. An emotional hangover following Chavez’s death, promises to continue in the fallen leader’s footsteps, and an unfair electoral process might easily give a decisive edge to Chavez’s successor.
As 2013 begins, Venezuela continues hurtling toward a constitutional chasm. While there are reports of conversations between U.S. officials and the Venezuelans about restoring ambassadors, it is important to remember that deeds, rather than mere words, count. Changes in Venezuela’s foreign policy and security behavior will not likely occur until after Venezuela has crossed into the post-Chavez era.
Former U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro predicts that “a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future.”
Few, save for incorrigible diplomatic optimists, would disagree.