Venezuela: A Struggle for Succession?

  • Hugo Chavez
    Dec 10, 2012

    After having disappeared from public view since November 15, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela returned from medical treatment in Cuba December 7 and told a national television audience that his cancer had returned and that, if incapacitated, voters should elect Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor. If true, the months ahead could be tense for Venezuelans, depending on the outcome of Chávez’s next round of surgery scheduled to take place in Havana this week.

    Q1: How certain is the current health crisis?

    A1: Reports may or may not be true since there is no independent, reliable information source other than the president who decides what he wants to divulge. One speculative theory holds that Chávez’s health problems have been serious but not life threatening—trumped up to focus attention on him, generate sympathy during this year’s election campaign, and now may even be a way of boosting Venezuela’s bond sales. Recently, dollar bonds have advanced and yields have dropped on the possibility that he could leave power before the end of his new term that starts in January. Keeping the spotlight on Chávez could also be useful in the run-up to next week’s gubernatorial elections, which partisans hope to win on the strength of their identification with him.

    Still, other signs point to a genuine health decline. Chávez’s return to Cuba will mark his third reported surgery, even though last July he claimed to be free of cancer. During the campaign leading to the October 7 presidential election, he seemed to be making fewer appearances and by the end appeared exhausted. Since the vote, his television appearances have been rare. Returning home from Cuba only temporarily, he decided to skip the December 8 Mercosur summit held in Brasilia. It would have been his first Mercosur summit since Venezuela became a full member. Instead, he sent Vice President Maduro. But again, all these observations may be like watching the lineup of generals at a Soviet May Day parade to predict what is happening in the Kremlin.

    Q2: What happens if the Venezuelan leader is incapacitated?

    A2: A lot could happen within the next month. If Chávez leaves office before January 10, when he is supposed to be inaugurated, Vice President Maduro will assume the presidency until then. However, the vice president is appointed by the president, and incumbency does not carry into the next term. After January 10, the president of the National Assembly would preside for 30 days while new elections are held. For now, Diosdado Cabello (a former chavista vice president) is president of the Assembly. However, the next Assembly starting on January 5 could elect someone else. Chávez has pointed to Maduro as his chosen successor. In other words, party members would not, at this juncture, choose a candidate through a primary. As long as Chávez survives, Maduro is likely to remain unchallenged. In the event that Chávez does not, a power struggle could develop among Maduro and other members of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to become the party’s official candidate or to replace him outright.

    Q3: Who are possible contenders?

    A3: Should Chávez step down, Nicolas Maduro, who was appointed vice president in October would be the official candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela—at least for now. If Chávez remains in office past his inauguration date, that choice could change as the president is known to rotate loyalists through various offices to keep them from amassing too much power. Like many in the top echelons of chavismo, the 50-year-old Maduro is a longtime follower. A bus driver after high school, he became a trade union leader and a founder of Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement. From 2000 to 2006, he served in the National Assembly and then was appointed minister of foreign affairs. Considered pro-Cuba, he advocated continued support to Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. His wife, Cilia Flores, is attorney general.

    Another possibility might be National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, a college-educated engineer who was also vice president and interior minister and a soldier who participated in Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt. However Cabello’s fortunes have plateaued in recent years, and he is viewed as anti-Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuban advisers and intelligence personnel make up part of Chávez’s inner circle.

    Among opposition party candidates, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is likely to back former Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. Whether this would be determined by a primary vote, as it was in February 2012, is unclear. Capriles is running again for governor of Miranda in elections on December 16. If he wins, he would be in a good position to compete for president again. If not, he would have a much harder time, although earlier in the year he was favored ahead of Chávez loyalists in public opinion polls, coming within 10 points of beating Chávez in the October vote.

    Q4: What role would the armed forces play?

    A4: In a broadcast on state television following his December 7 return to Venezuela, President Chávez said that the military high command was in agreement with his decision to hand over power to Nicolas Maduro. Both Maduro and Defense Minister Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia were at his side. “The Republic is in good hands, the Revolution is in good hands,” he said. Whether that commitment of personal loyalty would transfer to Maduro in a post-Chávez environment is not certain—reportedly not all members favor Maduro’s pro-Cuba stance. Moreover, their willingness to accept an opposition victory in those circumstances, is unknown.

    Conclusion: While Venezuelans ponder the future of their president undergoing surgery in Cuba, there is more drama yet to play out. However, nobody knows just when.

    Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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