Hugo Chavez Succession: For Venezuela, Next Steps Are As Uncertain As Leader's Health Declines

The uncertainties swirling around Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his health, and the state of his nation make it difficult — if not impossible — to approximate what’s happened in the days since Chavez missed his planned January 10 inauguration, and more significantly, what will happen should the country’s incumbent die or remain incapacitated.

Apart from the president, also notably absent from Tuesday’s state of the nation address, was legal agreement on whether Vice President Nicolas Maduro acted in accordance with the constitution. He spoke for a matter of minutes, during which he offered little but a reminder that his deliverance of the annual speech was permissible, despite opposition’s redirect to Article 237 of the constitution, which stipulates that the “president, in routine session … shall personally present, each year, to the Assembly a message in which they give account of the political, economic and administrative aspects of their administration during the previous year.” 

As of Tuesday, January 15, the 10-day mark had passed. President Chavez has not been seen in public since December 2012.

The secrecy surrounding the president’s health began in the late spring of 2011, when Chavez cancelled a trip to Brazil due to supposed knee pain and doctor-mandated bed-rest. Just over a month later, he announced from Cuba that he’d undergone surgery for the removal of a cancerous tumor — (the whereabouts of which went unspecified). In the fall of 2012, Chavez proudly declared that he was completely cured, and went on to win another 6-year presidential term with 54% majority shortly thereafter.  

As president of one of the world’s largest oil export economies, Chavez pledged to fund social development initiatives with state revenue, and “be a better president every day.”  Necessary, considering that Venezuela’s murder rate all but quadrupled since he took office in 1999.

According to 2011 oil export reports from the country’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, (PDVSA) and the Central Bank of Venezuela, (BVC) oil production was at 3.1 billion barrels per day in the early months of 2010. The fact that Venezuela is oil-rich does not attribute as a direct cause of state instability, but is instead a potential vehicle through which the political state can control and exploit its people. Part of the real and prevalent sense of tragedy for Venezuela today, with or without Chavez, is in what hasn’t happened in his 13 years as president.

In the meantime, Reuters reported on the urgent need to resolve certain economic and policy decisions, including “an expected devaluation of the bolivar currency that economists and the private sector say is long overdue.”

Said Venezuela’s main business chamber Fedecamaras: “We are in an urgent moment that needs, without delay, the adoption of rational and economic decisions.”

Whether these critical decisions about Venezuela will take place in Venezuela, versus in absentia from an overseas hospital, remains to be seen.

Should Chavez step down from his presidency or die, Vice President Maduro will likely find himself running against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the moderate who lost to Chavez in October 2012’s election. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) called for a march against the "unconsitutionality" of what they perceive to be an illegitimate government following the no-show presidential inaguration of the 10th. 

The implications of what’s to come for Venezuela may be unclear, but what is not the least uncertain is that the country cannot sustain this state of limbo much longer.