After Hugo Chavez, A Power Vacuum?

After 12 years of indisputable and triumphant leadership, the news that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has cancer casts a shadow of uncertainty one year before the country’s upcoming presidential elections.

If Venezuela were a stable democracy with adequate checks and balances of power split between all five branches (Venezuela has two more branches of government), Hugo Chavez’s deteriorating health would not be so alarming. But in Venezuela, Chavez’s personality reigns supreme and his authority is absolute over the other branches of government. Many Venezuelans fear that if he dies or falls sick anytime soon, there is no other leader in the country strong enough to replace him.

Last week Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba, following a second round of chemotherapy, to reassume his authority as president. This is the second time he has willingly delegated his powers to Vice President Elias Jaua, who is known to have an unquestionable loyalty to the Chavez. During Chavez’s absences, Jaua has received much media attention, and has begun taking Chavez’s place at public events. Chavez’s real health status is kept a secret and he has publicly said he is cancer-free, but there are practical speculations that Chavez is willing to delegate Jaua as his successor and his illness is genuine.

Jaua would be the natural choice to replace Chavez, but Jaua lacks the charisma that is needed to survive in a political system that is vastly built around the personal qualities of a leader. Chavez likes Jaua because of his unquestionable loyalty, but if Chavez falls sick, will loyalty alone be enough to hold the reins of power in a country where popular feelings and passions are so volatile? The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) is known to have multiple factions and leadership disputes within its ranks, and party cohesion could be torn apart if the only link that binds the chain together disappears. Will Jaua be able to lead the party if Chavez disappears? I think not.

On the other hand, the alternative opposition candidates do not offer promising options either. The only opposition leader that seems to challenge Chavez’s popularity for the upcoming elections is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who received 37% support in a recent survey conducted by Venezuelan poll Datanálisis. Capriles’ image might appear too middle-class/petit-bourgeoisie for a country where Chavez has stirred social class antagonisms and where the hallmarks of Republican institutions are barely noticeable.

With Chavez’s sickness, Venezuela’s political future looks dim and uncertain; without him the country could slip into further instability and unfortunate chaos. In the past in South America, these scenarios have resulted in military interventions. The question remains, with all the ways that Chavez has eroded the country’s democratic institutions to take power for himself, what is the most desirable future for Venezuelans?

Photo Credit: Globovisión