Venezuela’s future will be decided in January. Hugo Chavez hasn’t said a word in public since December 11, before he was scheduled to receive his fourth cancer treatment. Silence has never been one of his virtues. He seems to be in critical condition, and doctors are hinting that he might not be healthy enough to be sworn in as president on January 10th, the constitutionally scheduled date. This presents a golden opportunity for the opposition to foment division inside "Chavismo."
Even though Chavez has named his successor in Nicolás Maduro, his vice president, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello may challenge this decision on constitutional grounds.
There is a behind-the-scenes battle taking place between these two men, and the first showdown will take place on January 5, the day when the National Assembly will choose the new president of that body (the first man in line of succession if Chavez doesn’t recover by January 10th, an unlikely scenario). If Chavez cannot stand on his feet, travel from Cuba to Venezuela, and speak the solemn words in front of the National Assembly, the president of that body will be sworn in his place temporarily, and a new presidential election must be called within 30 days.
Naturally, Cabello wants to be reelected as National Assembly president, securing his temporary ascension to the presidency of the republic, the strongest position from which he can then dictate his own terms. In a country where institutions are so weak, this temporary mandate would be essential to establish his own power, autonomous from his rival Maduro.
Maduro could try to undermine Cabello’s reelection to the National Assembly presidency, cutting his way to the supreme office of the government. Chavismo is on the verge of breaking apart.
The lesson of Venezuelan politics is clear: Opposition parties and candidates cannot win a presidential election as long as the chavistas remain united. This was accurately displayed during the October 7th presidential elections.
Why can’t the opposition win a presidential election? Simple: the biggest political machine in Latin America, financed by one of the wealthiest oil empires in the world, stands in its way. Venezuela does not hold fair elections, and the opposition faces an overwhelming disadvantage to the government.
This is not an issue of civic duty, nor of voters coming out to freely elect the president in a democratic way, as in Brazil, Chile, Mexico or Colombia. This is not about winning the electorate, because the system is completely rigged . It is naïve to keep hoping that the opposition might one day win just by the virtue of its moderate, mild and progressive rhetoric. During the December 16 state elections, the chavistas overwhelming won, and the electoral base of the opposition shrank considerably because a majority of people no longer believe in elections altogether. The opposition has become demoralized.
Still, January 5th marks the opposition’s first real chance. With Chavez out of the picture, the entire regime might collapse. And this might very well happen if Cabello becomes an obstacle to Maduro, splitting the allegiances between these two leaders. It could torpedo the monolithic cohesion of chavismo’s political machine, and create a more favorable scenario for the opposition. As the day to pick the National Assembly president nears, the opposition legislators must decide whether they’re going to support Cabello or Maduro.
Supporting Maduro would mean supporting Chavez's heir, a ridiculous choice. Cabello is not even close to a good choice either, but being the natural opponent of Maduro, he has a better chance of opposing him from within the regime.
A final scenario: If the opposition decides to run its own legislative platform to the National Assembly presidency, let’s say headed by strongwoman Maria Corina Machado, it would be a strategic mistake and they will never beat chavismo.
The government’s potential split offers incalculable opportunities for the opposition. After 14 years of defeat, chavismo may finally come crashing down in 2013.