During the course of his 14-year rule, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has dismantled all barriers to the absolute centralization of power around his own person. Now with Chávez in Havana recovering from his fourth surgery on his metastasized cancer—though he has refused to disclose what kind of cancer it is—it’s still not clear what happens once he’s gone. And it seems that moment is soon approaching.
During his last national television broadcast before leaving for Cuba, Chávez, amid lugubrious talk of hyperbaric chambers and the singing of folk songs, announced that, should he be unfit to rule, Vice President Nicolás Maduro should take his place as president. He also anointed Maduro his chosen presidential candidate in the new elections to be held if he dies within the first half of his six-year term—which is looking likely. However, Chávez has been technically unfit to rule for 18 months, and yet this is the first talk we have heard of a successor.
Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister, is little more than a charming puppet, a quiet loyalist whom the Cubans approved. Maduro’s recent television appearances are right out of Chávez’s, or Fidel Castro’s, playbook: impassioned talk of the revolution, delivered with a rhythmic cadence and, intermittently, tears in his eyes, as he pleads with the Venezuelan people to be “serenely prepared” to await the fate of their dear leader and Venezuela. Maduro is regarded as a consensus builder—too weak to be offensive and able to offer something for everyone. As foreign minister, he brokered deals with the Cubans, Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and Azeris—so they can count on him to protect their interests. Maduro is also more sympathetic to business interests than most of his rivals in the United Venezuelan Socialist party (PSUV) coalition.
Former vice president Elías Jaua and National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello are simply too radical, and naming them would have forced the more moderate chavistas to rally against them. The appointment of a general would have engendered an angry rebellion by the civilian chavistas. The civilian-military alliance, indeed the entire PSUV, is fragile, held together only by Chávez’s enormous charisma. Now that he might be making his exit, Chávez has, true to revolutionary form, put his party, his revolution, and his historic legacy ahead of the good of his country.
Venezuela is in trouble. The country is almost broke—and may in fact go broke when the price of crude drops below $80 a gallon. Adding to the economic woes are gasoline subsidies that enable Venezuelans to fill their fuel tanks for anywhere between 30 cents and $1, depending on whether you use the black-market or the official exchange rate. The last time the government tried to end gas subsidies was 1989—riots erupted, prompting violent military repression that resulted in Chávez’s attempted coup in 1992 against Carlos Andrés Pérez. Anger over gasoline prices brought the chavistas into power and could well force them out again.
And then there is the foreign exchange problem. Venezuela currently has a major shortage of U.S. dollars, which are vital for business, to buy raw materials and pay debts. The Venezuelan bolívar must be devalued, which will spark skyrocketing inflation and likely lead to social unrest.
With the country in limbo, there is no good way for the opposition United Democratic Movement party (MUD) to exploit Chávez’s exit from the scene without risking turning him into a revolutionary martyr. So the opposition has remained quiet, mumbling the occasional polite wish for a speedy recovery. And they might mean it.
If Chávez does not return for his inauguration January 10, the president of the National Assembly takes over and rules until new elections are held on February 10. If running a presidential election with 30 days’ notice seems impossible, it behooves the chavistas to stick to the constitution. Not only will it allow them to maintain some legitimacy and deflect international criticism, it will also give them the opportunity to run against a fractured, unprepared, and impoverished opposition.
It’s not clear yet who from the opposition would run against Chávez’s designated successor, Maduro. The candidate who lost to Chávez in October, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is running for governor of Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas, against Chávez’s last vice president, Elías Jaua. If Capriles loses this race, too, he will be, as a loser twice over in the space of three months, a very unappealing candidate to take on the PSUV once again.
However, the MUD has no other viable presidential candidate and no money with which to run another campaign. The last one cost them $60 million, and while there are wealthy and powerful Venezuelans who will always give the opposition money, the party would be hardpressed to raise that sum so quickly. Perhaps it would be wiser to run a second-tier candidate for president, wait for the chavistas to fracture and fight each other, and for the economy to unravel further, and then run a winning candidate next time out.
As it stands now, the opposition’s worst-case scenario is for Capriles to lose the gubernatorial race and then for Chávez to fail to take office in January. The ideal scenario is for Capriles to become governor, and for Chávez to be sworn in and rule long enough to make these necessary-yet-unpopular policy decisions that will effectively discredit the entire chavista project. With the prospect of riding a wave of discontent all the way to the Miraflores presidential palace after Chávez, the mantra of the opposition is a twist on the Augustinian plea: “Lord, give us relief from Chávez, but not yet.”
Vanessa Neumann is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.