Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has died of cancer, leaving a power vacuum that will be hard to fill in the oil-rich country. After Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s announcement of the president’s death, Minister of Foreign Affairs Elías Jaua announced on March 6 that elections would be called in 30 days, as the constitution stipulates, and clarified that Maduro would maintain executive powers until then.
The constitution cast doubts over the legality of Maduro’s temporary succession. It decrees that if the death or incapacitation of the president takes place before a new president is sworn in—as occurred in Venezuela—the head of the national assembly, not the vice president, should take on executive powers until elections take place.
The government declared seven days of mourning for the president and suspended classes nationwide. Maduro said that the armed forces and the national police would be on the streets to prevent violence.
According to the government, Chávez had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment at the Carlos Arvelo military hospital in Caracas, although no pictures or film footage has corroborated that and no one other than top government officials has attested to seeing him there. The president last appeared in public on December 9, 2012, when he appointed Maduro as vice-president and called on the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) and the armed forces to back Maduro if he had to assume presidential responsibilities. The Supreme Court indefinitely postponed Chávez's presidential swearing-in ceremony on January 10, 2013. The court also ruled that Maduro and the rest of the ministers from the 2007-2013 presidentialterm would remain in their posts for the 2013-2019 term.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez remains in a Caracas military hospital, prompting continued speculation in Venezuela and abroad about eventual succession and concerns over political stability—as well as uncertainty about who is in charge.
The president’s uncertain situation comes at a time of significant social and economic difficulty in Venezuela. The government’s announcement on February 2 of a 32 percent currency devaluation and the elimination of the bond-exchange market rate is likely to generate further inflationary pressures and shortages of essential goods. Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to build political capital over growing popular discontent against the devaluation, which will affect the purchasing capacity of Venezuelans.
If Chávez dies—whether in the first four years of his term or the last two—Venezuela’s weak political institutions will be gravely tested. Here are the guidelines set out in Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution should any of the following three scenarios take place:
If Chávez regains his health: Taking the government’s official announcements at face value, Chávez could recover his health and continue as president. Pending any new health-related developments, this would mean less in terms of political instability, but Chávez’ idiosyncratic rule and mismanagement of the economy could pose formidable problems for Venezuela in the long run.
If Chávez passes away or becomes incapacitated in the last two years of his six-year term: Under this scenario, Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro would finish out the remainder of the presidential term before new elections are called.
If Chávez passes away or becomes incapacitated in the first four years of the six-year constitutional term: Vice-President Maduro would replace Chávez until the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council –CNE) calls for a new election within 30 days.