In December, just two months after winning his fourth term as president, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced that the cancer he was first diagnosed with in 2011 had returned, and that he would be heading to Cuba for treatment. Before departing he selected vice president Nicolás Maduro, whom he described as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work,” to be his successor and asked his supporters to back Maduro should he become unable to lead the country.
The cancer treatment, described by Maduro as “tough” and “complex,” has kept Chavez out of the public eye, with post surgery photos of him surfacing only a few days ago. Though the respirator in his throat has kept the usually verbose leader quiet, he announced his return via a series of tweets to his four million followers (he is reportedly the second most followed president in the world, after Barack Obama.) Upon his return car horns and spontaneous fireworks reportedly sounded throughout Caracas with mass demonstrations scheduled for later this week.
Though Chavez’s return has been met with “jubilation” from his supporters, Venezuela’s political future is in question. The country’s constitution calls for new elections if the head of state is deemed no longer fit to perform his or her duties. Members of the opposition have already called the appointment of Maduro unconstitutional.
What then, would Chavez stepping down mean for the country? He beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles with over 54% of the vote in what were generally considered free elections. While Chavez’s ubiquity and hold on the media has raised some eyebrows, the race was tighter than in the past, probably due to the opposition taking a less fractured position.
Should it come to an election, Maduro would likely face a stiffer competition than Chavez. He recently ordered a 46% currency devaluation that could lead to a 20% decrease in real income and a 30% rise in inflation. According to Francisco Monaldi, visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Venezuela’s poor are likely to face the brunt of this. As this population makes up the core of Chavez’s support, the government’s approval rating is expected to drop by up to 5%.
Though opponents have labelled Maduro “a poor imitation” of Chavez, a recent local poll by Hinterlaces saw Maduro taking 50% of the votes and Capriles pulling in 36%. Capriles claimed Hinterlaces is on the government payroll and its numbers are flawed, but the pollster roughly predicted the percentage points by which Chavez would win the most recent elections.
While Chavez is known in the U.S. for his fiery rhetoric opposing American imperialism, his relationship with Obama appears somewhat warm when compared to George W. Bush, a man he called “the devil” at a speech at the U.N.
Recent, albeit tenuous, signs of increased cooperation between the U.S. and Venezuela have begun to rise up in light of the potential political crisis. The day before Chavez’s return, Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua said the government is in the process of reaching out to Washington via the Organization of American States about restoring ambassadors in both countries. As important as this step is, Jaua made sure to stress that Venezuela has “learned to live without an American ambassador.”
As the political situation in Venezuela unfolds, Brazil has been exercising its position as a regional power by making calls for new elections. For its part the U.S. is treating the situation more delicately and has mostly remained quiet. Is this relative silence to preserve the potential for a new beginning for Venezuelan politics? Or is it due to the recognition that despite its role in supporting the oil economy, Venezuela’s politics have long been out of America’s reach?