Hugo Chavez Cancer Mystery is Set to Spiral Venezuela Out of Control

On Thursday, January 10, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was scheduled to be sworn in for his third term in office before Venezuela’s National Assembly. There is only one problem. Chavez has not been seen or heard from in any official capacity since December 11 when he left Venezuela to undergo an undisclosed form of cancer surgery in Cuba. As the countdown to the inauguration continues, speculation has grown that Chavez is dead or actively dying, prompting questions about the future of his administration and what implications his demise might have on the stability of Venezuela.

A Constitutional Crisis?

Chavez’s prolonged illness would be far less controversial were it not for the Venezuelan constitution which explicitly states that a president need be present to begin his term or an interim leader is required to be appointed and elections held within 30 days. Administration advocates, notably Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, have called the proceedings a “formality” and argued that the national charter is sufficiently flexible to delay what is merely a continuation of presidential power. Chavez is currently scheduled to be sworn in by the Venezuelan Supreme Court at a later date, once he is recovered. However, Chavista opponents have declared that any delay without interim leadership is unconstitutional and have petitioned the intervention of the Organization of American States. Should the constitutional stalemate continue to escalate, political or military unrest could follow.

In examining the pro-Chavez propaganda campaign being launched by administration advocates, it is clear supporters like Cabello and Maduro want the public to continue its fervent support of the current administration until a plan for an acceptable transition of power can be decided upon within Chavez’s inner-circle. Having the Venezuelan Supreme Court or the National Assembly, both which are pro-Chavez, declare an official postponement of the inaugural requirement is merely a delay tactic. Such a blatant attempt to circumvent the laws of the constitution has already fueled the ire of the opposition, which views the mandate to call for elections within 30 days as a unique opportunity to change Venezuela's political landscape. The problem is, after 14 years of Chavez leadership, Venezuela is ill-equipped to manage with anyone else at the helm, regardless of political affiliation. 

If Hugo Chavez Dies, Will Venezuela Fall Apart?

Growing media speculation suggests Chavez might be too sick to resume his presidential duties. Such commentary was fueled in early December by Chavez himself when he encouraged supporters to elect Vice President Maduro should he become incapacitated in Cuba. Chavez’s continued absence from the public eye, this from a man who is never far from the cameras, only increases doubts about his alleged recovery. At the present time, Maduro and Cabello are effectively running Venezuela, with little or no input from the elected leader of the country. But these two men are not political allies and, if Chavez dies, they will likely turn on each other as they race to win the presidency.

If Chavez were to die or become incapacitated, he will leave significant political shoes to fill. His recent landslide electoral victory in October, against opposition strong-man Henrique Capriles Radonski, proved he is the choice of the people and his adoring public is unlikely to settle for a less captivating leader. Neither Cabello nor Maduro has Chavez’s mystique and the opposition, to see power in 2013, would have to win not only a propaganda war but also defeat a system designed to propagate Chavista rule to the exclusion of all else. If anything, Chavez’s protracted struggle with cancer has cemented his popular appeal and raised his status to that almost of an exalted deity. New Year’s Eve celebrations were canceled due to his illness, rallies have been scheduled for January 10 in lieu of the inauguration and masses in support of his recovery are being held across the country.

While there is much dialogue exploring how policies put in place by Chavez have only served to undermine prosperity and security in Venezuela, at this point the country likely requires his bold red presence as a figurehead to continue moving forward. Recent reporting indicated bond prices tied to the state-owned oil company PDVSA have fallen alongside Chavez's failure to recover and regional leaders are concerned that a change in Venezuelan leadership would negatively affect the Petrocaribe subsidized oil export program and, ultimately, their economic stability.  

All of this political uncertainty has done nothing to mitigate the persistent, and increasing, security challenges being experienced in Venezuela. The Chavez government refrained from releasing official crime statistics in 2012 but academic NGOs like the Venezuela Violence Observatory reported a significant spike in the murder rate. The situation is unlikely to improve as long as Chavez and his allies, who ignore the underlying root causes of violence in deference to flashy, populist campaigns that provide instant political capital, remain in power. Moreover, the uncertainties in the political climate as a result of Chavez’s lingering illness will likely contribute to additional deterioration.

However, a Venezuela without Chavez, at least in the short term, would likely see violence spiral out of control. Chavez is a controversial presence internationally, and is loathed by many within Venezuela, but he is also a great unifier. With him in power, his fractious United Socialist Party of Venezuela is kept in line, and the numerous, somewhat ideologically divided, opposition groups have a target around which to coalesce. Also importantly, Chavez has the support of the military, which has a significant power base and is autonomous enough to create a political rift should it chose to do so. Without Chavez, administration officials and opposition heavyweights alike would focus more on political alliances and position than remedying the current ills and there is no way to force the military to support a certain candidate, which could result in a coup. All in all, Venezuela is at a critical juncture in its modern history. While Chavez may not be the ideal choice for Venezuela, he has successfully altered the reality on the ground to the point where, constitutionally right or not, he is the best choice for its stability in the short term.