Venezuela Shaken by President Hugo Chavez's Illness

Article excerpt

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is suffering from cancer, which he admitted after four weeks of speculation regarding the state of his health NotiSur, June 24, 2011. The president's illness has raised doubts about the future of the Revolucion Bolivariana, sustained in large part by his leadership and charisma. Next year will bring presidential elections, and a positive health outcome for Chavez will largely determine whether his political party can hold onto the government and postpone for another six years the hopes of an opposition that claims to be united but has failed to create a unified leadership capable of confronting and overcoming the phenomenon of a president who, after 19 uninterrupted years leading the country, continues to captivate large sectors of society.

Not only Venezuela is waiting. The leadership Chavez has achieved in Latin America means that from Cuba, in the Caribbean, to Argentina, in the heart of the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR), there is concern for the future, because his "solidary internationalism" and his penchant for promoting integration agencies have made him a central figure in a region involved in change processes that have found in Chavez an unconditional ally.

No one yet knows for sure how serious Chavez's illness is--except him, the Cuban doctors treating him, and Fidel Castro. "Thanks to Fidel, who 'insisted' that I have the checkups that found the illness," said Chavez just after returning from Havana, where he was visiting and where he was operated on, first for what was said to be a pelvic abscess and then a malignant tumor.

Later, little by little, other details emerged, as the president was visibly thinner and the chemotherapy was causing him to lose his hair so that he shaved his head. The lack of official information and a macabre wave of rumors that some, maliciously, say were started by his close associates, prompted the opposition--which still has not found the formula enabling it to overshadow the president--to denounce the government's lack of transparency and bring up the urgent need to transfer power to Vice President Elias Jaua.

Chavez's illness brings talk of succession

Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the natural successor in cases of illness or death--"temporary absence" or "absolute absence" are the terms used in the Constitution--is the vice president, who, contrary to what happens in most of the world, is not elected along with the president but is appointed by him and can be replaced just like any minister or official.

Nevertheless, names of possible successors began to be floated. Among those made public were Jaua, obviously, Ministers Tareck el Aissami (Interior and Justice), Nicolas Maduro (Foreign Relations), and Rafael Ramirez (Energy and Mines), Deputy Diosdado Cabello, and even Adan Chavez, older brother of the president and governor of the state of Barinas. The list, which at one time contained other names (even that of Marfa Gabriela, the president's oldest daughter), was authored by the press and opposition leaders, even knowing, one and all, that in case of a transfer of power, the only possibility was Jaua--not only because he is vice president but also because that is what the Constitution stipulates. The objective of these rumors was clearly to plant the idea that Chavez's days are numbered.

The Constitution deals with presidential absence in two ways--temporary absence and permanent absence. During a temporary leave, the president would turn the government over to the vice president. A permanent absence, which would occur because of death, abandonment of office, of permanent incapacity--would inevitably culminate in a special election unless it occurred during the last two years of a president's term, in which case the vice president would finish the term.

In this case, then, if Chavez had to take a permanent leave, the vice president would take over until the presidential elections next year. …