It's only March, but 2013 is shaping up to be a year of transition for Latin America. Following on the heels of Raul Castro’s decision last month not to seek an additional term, 58-year-old Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed away on Tuesday afternoon after 14 years in office and long struggle with cancer.
The precise details of Chavez’s illness have remained a secret since he acknowledged his first surgery in June, 2011, although pelvic cancer is the prime suspect. His government was initially optimistic, insisting that he was “in full exercise of his physical and mental powers” despite Chavez’s return to Cuba for additional treatment in July. Almost exactly a year later, on July 9th 2012, Chavez declared himself fully recovered, and continued on to win a fourth 6-year term.
Following the election, however, Chavez’s health rapidly declined. He returned to Cuba in late November, followed by an additional operation in December. His treatment was plagued by a series of lung infections and respiratory failures, likely a result of an immune system depressed by chemotherapy.
Medical complications aside, Chavez’s health has proven almost as controversial as his policies. Indeed, he nearly provoked a constitutional crisis when he appeared unable to be sworn in on January 10th, the constitutionally designed day. The Venezuelan government shrouded Chavez’s location, condition, and treatment in secrecy and the leader himself hadn't made a public appearance since his operation in December.
Opposition leaders strongly criticized the secrecy surrounding the president’s treatment, questioning his ability to govern and even accusing the government of concealing his death. Groups of students took to the streets demanding answers, only to be met by pro-Chavez counter-protesters. Even his supporters have been frustrated by the secrecy. “We are worried because he does not appear. The truth is that I don’t know what’s happening,” offered Libardo Rodriguez, a 60-year-old Chavez supporter. “There are many rumors and nobody knows who to believe.”
Now that the 58-year-old president has died, the constitution calls for a snap election to be held within 30 days, likely pitting current vice president and heir apparent Nicolas Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Nicolas Maduro is a former bus driver and union leader who has been officially designated as Chavez’s successor and would likely represent a continuation of his predecessor’s policies. As foreign minister from 2006 to 2012, Maduro's legacy is complicated. A vocal anti-imperialist, he is credited with strengthening Venezuela’s ties to Cuba, Libya, Syria, and Iran and has often criticized the United States. At the same time, he gained a reputation as a conciliator after defusing Venezuela’s hostile relationship with Colombia. Domestically, Maduro is a committed leftist and defender of Chavez's socialist policies.
The most likely opposition challenger is Enrique Capriles, current governor of the state of Miranda. A member of the center-right Justice First party, he challenged Chavez for the presidency this past year, losing with 44% of the vote. Capriles identifies his role model as former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and supports a similar mix of free market reforms and social programs. Internationally, he has been less critical of United States, and has publicly stated he would seek to distance the country from Iran.
Although losing against Chavez 55% to 44%, Capriles offered the closest challenge yet, denying his opponent the landslide victory seen in previous years. The defeat of Chavez loyalist and previous vice-president Diosdado Cabello in 2008 has given his supporters hope for victory in a snap election. The odds, however, are shifting in favor of Maduro. Although he lacks Chavez’s charisma and raw popularity, being designated as the President’s successor has given him a boost, and a recent poll shows Maduro ahead. Moreover, recent rumors from within the opposition hint at internal division, questioning whether or not Capriles will be selected to run again.
In light of the secrecy surrounding Chavez's illness and death, it's difficult to offer accurate predictions for the future of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez was a larger-than-life figure, and for many, his person and policies are inseparable. In the next few months, the world will be waiting to see whether the Chavez revolution will continue to thrive, or if it will slowly wither away with it's charismatic founder.