Hugo Chávez died today at the age of 58. While many of his obituaries will focus on his voluminous political legacy, the day-to-day issues he leaves behind are enormously complex. Eventually, they are sure to overshadow any historical discussion about the man.
Politically, his movement is orphaned. Chávez was not only president of Venezuela, he was also president of his party, commanding every detail—from which candidates ran where to which judges had to be fired. His tenuous political coalition—made up of community leaders, the military, old-style communists and entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck—was only held together by the sheer force of the president’s charisma, which punished dissent swiftly and mercilessly. With Chávez gone, it’s not clear who will make the decisions, or who will keep the tensions among these factions at bay.
Economically, the Chávez legacy is horrendous. The Venezuelan economy consists of a series of distortions piled upon further distortions. Price controls, labor rigidities, foreign exchange controls, clogged ports, and crumbling highways are the norm in Venezuela. Together with a rapacious public sector, a crippling budget deficit, and an underperforming banking sector, the Venezuelan economy is a veritable ticking time bomb held up only by sky-high oil prices that, amazingly, are not enough to sustain the ever-growing chavista State. And while poverty has fallen thanks to massive government spending, this cannot survive a slight dip in oil prices.
In addition, Venezuelans are suffering from one of the worst crime waves any nation not engaged in civil war has ever seen. The government seemingly has no clue on how to tackle the problem. As program after program fails, the government blames the media—or some fictional capitalist culture.
Venezuelans have been in suspended animation ever since December, when the president—in his last public appearance—announced he was going back to Cuba for treatment and named his successor. Ever since that day, life in Venezuela has been a swirl of rumors, indecision and surreal policy-making that even saw the Supreme Court decide that Chávez didn’t have to be sworn in, as the Venezuelan constitution mandates.
Now, that is in the past. A glorious funeral will ensue, and Nicolás Maduro may very well ride the public’s outpouring to an election win. But soon, he will have to come to terms with a political system that has stopped working, and with an economy in tatters.
Congratulations on your inheritance, Mr. Maduro.
I must admit, I was shocked when the e-mail a colleague had written me flashed on my desktop yesterday. “Chávez is dead.” It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting it. But like the Chavista advisors that staged the bizarre, incoherent press conference shortly before they announced the Venezuelan President’s death, I was oddly taken aback.
In my defense, unlike them I didn’t have the responsibility—or advantage—of preparing the last near-three months. Amazingly, despite the lead time, in what was later revealed to really be their first post-Chávez press conference, Vice President Nicolás Maduro and the cabinet seemed completely out of sync—first an interminable series of introductions and then incredible allegations of U.S. intervention. And then—almost as an afterthought hours later—the announcement that Chávez was dead.
For the last decade or so, being witness to the Chávez government made me feel like I had a front-row seat to the sort of Latin American history that I had studied as an undergrad and grad student. This time, though, there were real human beings and their lives at risk. But it still—I’m embarrassed to say—felt thrilling.
I sort of came of political-analyst age in the Chávez era. Oddly, I’ll always appreciate the beret-wearing putschist for that.
I remember when I arrived in Washington DC in 1995. Many people said that the region had gotten boring; we all seemed to be marching toward free trade and democratic bliss.
And then came Hugo Chávez. I was visiting Venezuela for a trip for the National Endowment for Democracy in 1998 when he was running for president. At the time, his opponents were a motley crew: a former Ms. Universe; a Yale-educated politician who arrived at political rallies on a white horse; and a 70-year-old traditional politician of the center left. At the time I was sure I would have voted for this charismatic figure, Chávez. My cost-free support for the former coup-plotter was bolstered when a prominent businessman confided to me in hushed tones that he had met with candidate Chávez in a closed-door meeting with business leaders and that he had listened, seemed to understand and quietly supported their cause. “The thing is,” he said, “you put that Rolex on his wrist [and all the perks of power] and he’ll moderate.”
Seemed like a good strategy to me. Vote for the outsider candidate who would clean up the annoying elements of the past, but still get a moderate outsider.
Only it didn’t work out that way.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has died, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced this evening. Since the president’s return home from Cuba on February 18, Venezuelan supporters have gathered to pray for the health of the president, which has been in decline for weeks. The death of the 58 year-old Chávez, who was re-elected to a fourth term as president last October, ends his fourteen years as president of Venezuela.
Over the weekend, Chávez opponents gathered to demonstrate in Caracas and demand news on the president’s health, which they said was being concealed by the Venezuelan government. Chávez had not been seen in public since a December 11 cancer surgery in Havana. Members of Venezuela’s opposition movement, including Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, have accused the government of lying to the public about the president’s health.
Chávez government officials denied that the government was concealing information about the president from the Venezuelan public. On Monday, Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas said that the president had been experiencing “highs and lows” in his health status and indicated that the president’s condition was worsening after suffering a severe respiratory infection following “a strong chemotherapy treatment.” Several weeks ago, the government revealed that Chávez, who was breathing through a tracheal tube, was unable to speak.
Guillermo Cochez, Panama’s former ambassador to the OAS, told NTN24 that Chávez had experienced brain death in late December—long before his return to Venezuela—and said that the president had been disconnected from life support machines for the last four days. Cochez’ assertions have yet to be confirmed.
It is still not clear what type of cancer Chávez suffered from. He was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, and a “softball sized tumor” was discovered in his pelvic region. After the diagnosis, he underwent three operations as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment—most of which were performed in Cuba.
Also unclear is what will happen in Venezuela in the wake of Chavez’ death. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s national assembly, is expected to assume interim presidency.
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.
Leaders of the Primero Justicia (Justice First—PJ) opposition party in Venezuela vigorously rejected claims of corruption yesterday, after National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello accused three of its members of such on Tuesday and the Assembly summarily agreed to open an investigation to look into the charges. Cabello, a loyalist of President Hugo Chávez, accuses PJ of illegally accepting campaign donations.
Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles, who was PJ’s presidential candidate in last year’s election and chosen in a February 2012 primary to represent an opposition coalition united against Chávez, dismissed the allegations and referred to Cabello as mafia leader Al Capone over Twitter. In a speech yesterday, Capriles told supporters that the ruling party wants “to come after me [and] demoralize you all.”
The opposition fears that chavista politicians are raising these threats in order to scare away private businesspeople from making future campaign donations. Given the lingering uncertainty surrounding Chávez’ health—he has not been seen in public for almost two months, and missed his own inauguration in January—Venezuelan political analyst José Vicente Carrasquero believes that Chávez loyalists are seeking to damage the opposition politically ahead of a possible upcoming election, according to the Associated Press. The Venezuelan Constitution calls for elections within 30 days if Chávez dies or steps down from office.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Cubans apply for foreign visas; Nicolás Maduro, Diosdado Cabello and Latin American leaders visit Chávez in Havana; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner travels to Asia; and Barack Obama begins his second presidential term.
Cuba Loosens Travel Restrictions: The directive announced last October to relax regulations on Cuban travel overseas goes into effect today. The measure eliminates the requirement for Cubans to have a government permit and an invitation letter from abroad when applying for a passport. However, the Cuban government still reserves the right to refuse passports “to those deemed risky to public security, national defense or for other reasons, and limit travel by professionals considered ‘vital’ to Cuba,” according to MercoPress. The Associated Press is reporting long lines forming outside travel agencies, migration offices and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana today in response to the policy.
Chávez Remains in Havana: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ health remains uncertain following his December 2012 surgery in Havana on an unspecified form of cancer—causing him to miss his own inauguration last week. Now that Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice has delayed Chávez’ swearing-in until an indefinite, ambiguous date when Chávez recovers, many Venezuelans are questioning who is in charge. Over the weekend, Vice President Nicolás Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello traveled to Havana to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro. Former Vice President Elías Jaua has said that Chávez is “fighting for his life” while Information Minister Ernesto Villegas asserts that the Venezuelan leader is responding to treatment. Pay attention this week to see if more information is revealed about the state of Chávez’ health.
CFK in Asia: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner departed Cuba yesterday, where she was meeting with Raúl and Fidel Castro, and continued to the Middle East and Asia for a three-country tour through next Monday. She arrived in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, yesterday to speak at the World Future Energy Summit and will leave tomorrow for Jakarta, Indonesia, for a visit that will focus on advancing bilateral cooperation with the world’s fourth most populous country. Fernández de Kirchner will depart Jakarta on Friday for Vietnam, where she will visit Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. The president’s visit follows a trade mission last October led by Secretary for International Trade Beatriz Paglieri.
Obama’s Inauguration: U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term on Sunday. However, since the January 20 date falls on a Sunday, the public ceremony on the National Mall in Washington DC will be pushed back one day to Monday, January 21. Obama will be sworn in on Sunday at a small, private gathering.
Una versión resumida de este artículo fue publicada el 10 de enero de 2013 en La Tercera.
La decisión está tomada. Cuenta con el apoyo total del partido de gobierno, los militares, y las cortes. El 10 de enero, la República Bolivariana de Venezuela se convertirá oficialmente en la primera república bicéfala de América.
El presidente en ejercicio y re-electo Hugo Chávez convalece secretamente en la Habana, luchando contra “nuevas complicaciones” surgidas a raíz de su cuarta operación contra un cáncer que también es secreto. La constitución exige que el 10 de enero termine el mandato del gobierno actual (Chávez III), y tome posesión un nuevo gobierno (Chávez IV). Chávez no podrá presentarse a su gran ceremonia, y la idea de enviar al Tribunal Supremo a la Habana para juramentarlo por fin ha sido desechada por impráctica, aparte de vergonzosa para la soberanía de Venezuela y la dignidad del paciente que ni respirar puede.
La solución a este dilema de presidente-electo pero impresentable será no respetar la constitución. La juramentación que la constitución obliga será postergada. Con ello, un gobierno en ejercicio en las Américas ha declarado que tiene el poder de extender su tiempo en el poder, cosa que sólo los chavistas consideran un acto democrático. Para ellos, lo único democrático es respetar la soberanía del pueblo, que re-eligió a Chávez en octubre, cuando todavía decía que estaba sano. Vivo, muerto o enfermo, hay que respetar la “continuidad administrativa” de la revolución, dicen los chavistas. Lo demás es una “formalidad.”
Los chavistas están convencidos que con la decisión de no juramentar a nadie están garantizando la continuidad de la revolución, pero no ven el riesgo político al que se están exponiendo. Sin un presidente juramentado, quedarán dos figuras grandes dentro del chavismo disputándose el poder: el vicepresidente y canciller del (no-saliente) gobierno Nicolás Maduro y el presidente electo de la Asamblea Nacional Diosdado Cabello. Estas dos cabezas han querido dar muestra de unidad, pero quién sabe hasta cuándo. Por ahora, en lo único que han estado de acuerdo es que ninguno de ellos debe ser juramentado presidente—veto mutuo.
Maduro y Cabello representan dos corrientes no sólo diferentes sino casi antagónicas dentro del chavismo. Maduro es un comunista radical. Se le ve muy cercano a Cuba y muy lejano de Venezuela, ya que por los últimos 6 años, canciller al fin y al cabo, se ha pasado recorriendo el mundo pactando asociaciones estratégicas, a menudo con los regímenes más herméticos del momento como Cuba, Libia (de Qadaffi), Siria, e Irán. Cabello en cambio no tiene experiencia internacional, ni contactos con Cuba, ni contó con la bendición de Chávez para ser sucesor. Pero a diferencia de Maduro, a Cabello le sobran contactos con su pueblo. El problema es que no todos estos contactos son motivos de gloria revolucionaria. Cabello fue militar y gobernador del importante estado de Miranda (el mismo que ahora gobierna el opositor de Chávez, Henrique Capriles). Estos cargos le dieron a Cabello oportunidades de hacer negocios siniestros con sectores castrenses y boliburgueses.
Toda situación bicéfala trae conflictos. Es imposible imaginar coincidencia de pensamiento plena, y mucho menos cuando sabemos que cada una de estas cabezas se orienta hacia intereses contrapuestos. En una república, el poder unitario de un jefe de estado se inventó para resolver la propensidad hacia el conflicto dentro de las corrientes de un mismo grupo gobernante. En una república bicéfala, por definición, no hay dicho ente unitario.
¿Qué pasará cuándo Maduro y Cabello empiecen a diferir? Nadie sabe. Una cabeza hará consultas con los ideólogos radicales castrófilos del mundo; la otra se comunicará con élites legislativas, castrenses y empresariales. Con orientaciones contrapuestas y sin árbritro, parece difícil imaginarse que la nueva república bicéfala será capaz de garantizar la unidad revolucionaria que Chávez siempre quiso dejar como legado.
Though Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will not be present, Uruguayan President José Mujica, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will be in Caracas today for the Venezuelan leader’s intended—and now postponed—inauguration.
As the ailing Chávez remains in Cuba recovering from a respiratory infection that followed his December 11 cancer surgery, hemispheric well-wishers are arriving in Venezuela to express support for the president, who was re-elected to a third six-year term as president in October despite concerns that he could soon become too ill to rule the country.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro said yesterday that Venezuelan officials have planned an event in honor of Chávez, who has not been seen in public for about a month. Chávez’ Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) said that it would convene a rally in front of the presidential palace. Meanwhile, Henrique Capriles, Chávez’ opponent in last year’s presidential elections, urged heads of state not to attend the proceedings.
Yesterday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced that Chávez’ absence from Venezuela on the date of his intended inauguration was legally permissible and would have no impact on his claim to the presidency. Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales rejected opposition claims that postponing the president’s swearing-in ceremony until after January 10—the inauguration date stipulated in the constitution—would violate Venezuelan law.
As Venezuela deals with a constitutional crisis, ordinary Venezuelans may be excused for not keeping up with the developments. They are too busy trying to find basic staples.
It has become increasingly difficult in Venezuela to find essential commodities such as sugar, cooking oil and milk. Corn flour, used to make traditional arepas, is easier to find in Miami than in Caracas. Even certain medicines are becoming hard to find.
The government has responded in typical fashion. It has blamed hoarders, and promised swift action to deal with them. At the same time, it denies scarcity exists, while it promises to continue “looking into the issue.”
The cause of scarcity lies with the government. After turning on the public spending spigot last year to ensure Hugo Chávez’ re-election, the fiscal deficit reached an astonishing 15 percent of GDP. With all that fresh money in the economy, imports soared, causing severe problems in the nation’s ports. In Venezuela, where even gasoline is imported, this is a huge deal.
The Venezuelan Catholic Church said on Monday that President Hugo Chávez must attend his inauguration when his term ends on Thursday. The country's leftist leadership plans to indefinitely delay the inauguration to allow Chávez time to return from Havana, where he is undergoing treatment for an unspecified type of cancer. But Monsignor Diego Padron, head of Venezuela's Conference of Bishops, said that delaying the ceremony would be a morally unacceptable violation of the constitution.”
Chávez, 58, has not been seen in public since he traveled to Cuba for his fourth cancer surgery nearly a month ago—the longest absence in his 14-year presidency. Given Chávez’ weakened state, Attorney-General Cilia Flores said Sunday that the swearing-in can take place at a later date. But Monsignor Padron said that a delayed inauguration would be unconstitutional, saying that “to alter the constitution to attain a political objective is morally unacceptable." Meanwhile the opposition has called for massive street protests if the government does not respect Thursday’s deadline.
During Chávez’ absence, Nicolás Maduro, the former foreign minister who was named vice president in October, has been running the country. The constitution stipulates that National Assembly President—Diosdado Cabello, who was re-elected to the post over the weekend,—act as president if Chávez is declared incapacitated before Thursday, and that Maduro would become head of state if Chávez is declared incapacitated after Thursday.