Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Would Happen if Chávez Couldn’t Finish His Term?

Q: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced June 30 in a televised address that he is being treated for cancer in Cuba. Four days later, he returned to Venezuela to a hero’s welcome. While Chávez’s political opponents have joined supporters in wishing him a quick return to health, the situation has prompted questions about the country’s governance in the short term, and about the implications of his illness on next year’s presidential elections and the country’s political system. What would happen if Chávez were unable to finish his term as president? Who would replace him? Is there a real risk that the political and social situation in Venezuela could turn chaotic as a result of Chávez’s illness? How does Chávez’s illness affect the country as it struggles with inflation, crime, falling oil production and electricity shortages?

A: Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Chávez’s prolonged absence from Venezuela and the announcement of his illness have only underscored the risks of a political system based on one-man rule. They have also laid bare the country’s deteriorating problems that cannot be adequately addressed given that Chávez makes all decisions. Without information about his prognosis, it is hard to know how long Chávez will be able to rule, though based on his triumphant speech there is no doubt that his charisma and popular touch are intact. If Chávez were unable to finish his term it is unclear who would replace him—or even how his successor would be selected. There are, to be sure, relevant constitutional provisions, but these are open to different interpretations and it is almost certain a power struggle would ensue. This episode has made it plain that key representatives of Chavismo don’t really know what to say or what to do absent direct orders from Chávez himself. Chávez’s sudden return to Caracas from Havana stemmed from a sense that Cubans probably had that the longer he was out of the country the greater the chances that the regime would weaken and Chávez could lose control. In such a highly polarized and rancorous setting—with both sides armed—a chaotic scenario cannot be ruled out. Fortunately, however, most Venezuelans know the tremendous costs of additional violence in a country where crime has soared, so under such circumstances political figures from across the spectrum would probably urge and exercise restraint.”

A: Julia Buxton, senior research fellow in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom: “Since Chávez’s illness was announced, a discernible and problematic trend has been for senior government, party and trade union officials to stress national unity with Chávez as he struggles with his health. This is a clever device, making criticism of the government unpatriotic and inhumane. Consequently, it will be difficult for those both within and outside the ranks of the Chavistas to challenge the administration and its policy record over coming months. The current fervor around Chávez’s return is also a useful mechanism for deflecting popular attention away from grievances. However, it is unlikely that the momentum of sympathy can be maintained and inevitably the focus will turn back to shortages, crime and insecurity—policy challenges that the government will put on the backburner as it adapts to the manifestly altered circumstances of a weakened president. Without information on Chávez’s prognosis, it is impossible to discern his capacity to finish his term or contest the 2012 election. What is clear is that the Chavistas cannot push back into the box the pressing issue of succession to Chávez. However, observers will be unwise to look at formal cabinet reshuffles as a clue to Chávez’s replacement in the event that one is needed. The influence of informal networks is significant within the Chavista hierarchy and it will be within these closed groups that strategies, authority and candidacies will be determined. This will in turn raise questions as to the legitimacy of post-Chávez arrangements—particularly if not endorsed in an election.”

A: Jeffrey Davidow, senior counselor at The Cohen Group: “In Shakespeare’s words, ‘the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’ The ultimate triumph of the autocrat is to cast a pall over the future—to distort reality to bend it to their will and whim after they’ve left the scene. The last few weeks provided an interesting preview of what a post-Chávez Venezuela might confront. Unless the autocrat gives his blessing, who will inherit power after the demise of the great leader is a taboo topic. Discussion is just too dangerous—the elite draw inward, suspiciously watching each other. The refusal to designate Chávez’s vice president as interim president demonstrated the extreme caution that the leadership cadre typically displays in such situations. Better not offend the boss, and, just as importantly, give no player front-runner status in the coming battle for succession. The prospect of the loss of the national leader is potentially traumatic for any country, but some can weather the storm better than others. Chávez’s illness reminds us how much he has eviscerated precisely those institutions that a democracy would call upon to help guide it through a difficult transition—the judiciary, independent electoral officials, a non-rubber stamp congress and a vigorous civil society. The saber rattling in recent weeks by Chávez partisans vowing to continue the Revolution without, it is clear, respect for even the minimal remaining institutions is a chilling reflection of what he may leave behind. The opposition is seen as unable to agree on governing proposals of its own. If Chávez disappears from the scene, what then unites the opposition? And what makes it attractive to voters, assuming the political scene is free and open enough in a post-Chávez environment to allow for elections. Whether Chávez has just survived a brush with death or not, his illness illustrates that what will outlast him is a dangerously weak state which will need all of its human resources to avoid the giant vacuums he will leave behind.”

A: Diego Arria, a member of the Advisor board and director of the Columbus Group in New York: “My take from the statement of Chávez’s brother Adán, the governor of Barinas state, that the regime must be prepared for ‘non-electoral options’ clearly suggests that Chávez will not be in a condition to run for president next year. Our constitution foresees that if the president has completed four years of his six-year term (which Chávez has) and must leave office permanently, the vice president would finish his term. Chávez was forced to return to Venezuela because of the internal feud among his party leaders positioning themselves for a non-Chávez presidency. The question today: would Elías Jaua remain as vice president (The vice presidency is not an elected post, but one designated by the president)? He, together with Adán Chávez, represents the Cuban faction within the regime—opposed by the military faction and others who have enriched themselves and are fighting to protect their gains. In my view, the regime without Chávez will not have much of a chance to survive. Chávez is the only political figure in their midst. This would open the door to an even more dominant role for the armed forces and probably very serious conflicts among the regime’s factions. If I had to bet, I believe that Chávez has chosen his brother Adán to be the presidential candidate in 2012, banking on the Chávez name. No one else in his party has any importance. In this situation, we cannot forget the significance of Cuba in the final outcome. There are more than 60,000 Cubans in Venezuela. The Castro duet may end up having the last word as they receive 100,000 barrels of oil every day from Chávez.”

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