2 Jan 2013

Hugo Chavez: what happens if he dies?

With concern growing over the health of Venezuela’s president, does his cult of ‘Chavista’ personality mean the country is doomed to political instability if he dies?

Nicolas Maduro interviewed for Venezuelan television (picture: Reuters)

“He gave us his approval to keep the people informed always, always with the truth, however harsh it could be.” So said Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro in a televised interview on Tuesday (pictured, left).

The comments show increasing concerns over the “delicate” state of Mr Chavez following complications arising from cancer surgery three weeks ago.

Mr Maduro said the Venezuelan president is conscious and “fully aware of his complex post-operation situation”. He also said the president has the “same strength as always” and urged Mr Chavez’s followers not to succumb to gossip spread by the “enemies of Venezuela”.

However, as the televised address went out, Twitter was a flurry of speculation. Some rumours suggested the president is in a coma.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez speaking in October 2012, one of his few recent public appearances (picture: Reuters)

Inauguration on hold

Mr Chavez (pictured, above) has been struggling with an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June 2011 and has had four operations over the last 18 months.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that the Venezuelan leader is very unwell. In eight days he is expected to be inaugurated for his fourth term as president, having won election in October. It looks increasingly unlikely he will be well enough to be sworn in.

And with the socialist president having been in power since 1999, leading the “Chavista” movement and bolstered by his own cult of personality, his death would mean the most significant upheaval for Venezuelan politics in 14 years.

For many years one’s position was dependent on one’s relationship with Chavez. A Chavez movement without the leader is a much more fragmented force. Professor Kevin Middlebrook

In the hope that Mr Chavez will recover, it is likely the government will push to postpone the date of his inauguration. Should he die before he is inaugurated, the constitution demands new elections within 30 days.

However, Dr Cynthia J Arnson, director of the Latin American programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said the whole situation around succession has become very confusing.

She said comments from the head of the National Assembly, Diasdado Cabello, suggest the day he could be sworn in on is “notional” and could be postponed.

“There is an enormous amount of jockeying going on to handle the likelihood that Chavez will be unable to be sworn in,” she said.

Venezuelan vice-preisdent Nicolas Maduro (picture: Reuters)

Maduro replaces

Kevin Middlebrook, professor of Latin American politics at the Institute of the Americas, University College London, says the most likely outcome in the event of Mr Chavez’s death is that Mr Maduro (pictured, right) will succeed him.

“Maduro has Chavez’s strong endorsement and he is Venezuela’s elected vice-president. In a moment of national grief and sympathy following Chavez’s death, it is likely that he would succeed,” he told Channel 4 News.

Dr Arnson believes loyalty to Mr Chavez would boost Mr Maduro in any elections. “The loyal following he (Chavez) has, and the fact that he has publically annointed Nicolas Maduro as his successor, sets Maduro up to carry forward the mantle of Chavismo forward,” she said.

“It is a very powerful endorsement from a man with a religious following in the country.”

Political divisions

But a wave of Chavista support for Mr Maduro would not necessarily last for long, Prof Middlebrook warns.

“Most likely to take over would be Maduro, but his political durability remains to be seen. There would at some point have to be new elections. That’s the moment when factionalism within the Chavista movement might become significant.”

Indeed, the absence of Chavez’s flamboyant personality – exemplified by his television addresses on his show “Alo Presidente” – would expose the divisions within the government, Prof Middlebrook predicts.

“The Chavez movement is very heterogeneous,” he says. “Its divisions are largely papered over by the force of Chavez’s personality. Maduro would definitely face challenges.”

Diosdado Cabello, leader of Venezuela's National Assembly (picture: Reuters)

The strongest of these challenges, Prof Middlebrook says, could come from leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Mr Cabello (pictured, left), who heads a “significant faction within the Chavez movement”. Mr Cabello was sidelined when Mr Maduro was named as the presidential successor last month. However, he has strong backing within the party and ties to the armed forces.

“For many years one’s position (within the Chavez government) was dependent on one’s relationship with Chavez. A Chavez movement without the leader is a much more fragmented force.”

Prof Middlebrook adds that a military coup d’etat, though unlikely, could not be ruled out if divisions within the Chavez government created significant political upheaval.

Venezuela under Maduro

Assuming that Mr Maduro takes power in the event of Mr Chavez’s death, it is likely the current president’s policies of “21st century socialism” will continue to be pursued.

Dr Arnson said: “There is very little suggestion that government policy or oil policy would change.

“Maduro is a loyalist. He is the anointed successor because he is seen as a loyal standard bearer for everything Chavez has put in place.”

“It would be the surest way of holding together the Chavista movement,” Prof Middlebrook says. “However, he is said to be a pragmatic politician and it is possible that he would be able solve some of the problems that Chavez did not deal with.

“For example, he is credited with the improving the relationship with Colombia as foreign minister, a position he still holds.”

One of these problems would be Venezuela’s fractitious relationship with the US. Mr Chavez, with his policies of “socialism and anti-imperialism”, has been one of the most vocal critics of US foreign policy.

Positive noises have been made from within the US and Venezuela that diplomatic relations could be set to improve between the two countries, with the redeployment of ambassadors in each.

Also, Venezuela’s economic significance cannot be underestimated. It has the world’s largest amount of oil reserves, while the US is the world’s largest oil importer.

Mr Chavez’s policies towards the US have kept oil prices high and stable, boosting his country’s economy. But the pragmatic Mr Maduro could preside over a softening of relations between Venezuela and the US, if he determines it to be in his country’s interests.