January 6, 2013 7:08 pm

Venezuelans contemplate life after Chávez

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People hold photographs of Hugo Chavez during a ceremony held in Managua to pray for the health of Hugo Chavez,©AFP

The longer President Hugo Chávez languishes on his sickbed in Havana, where he has been for almost a month and is battling a “severe” respiratory infection, the more Venezuelans suspect that his rollercoaster rule may be over.

If the ailing leader is forced to relinquish power, all eyes will be trained on the vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, who Mr Chávez himself named as the heir to his so-called “Bolivarian revolution” shortly before departing for his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba on December 11.

Mr Maduro only heightened uncertainty when he implied on Friday that the socialist leader may not be well enough to return by January 10, when the constitution states he must be sworn in before congress for his new six-year term.

“[The president] continues in his functions and the formality of his swearing in can be resolved by the Supreme Court,” said Mr Maduro, criticising the “ignorance and wickedness” of opposition leaders who insist that if Mr Chávez does not appear on Thursday he must be replaced by an interim president.

With rumours already running wild thanks to a dearth of official information – Spanish newspaper ABC says that Mr Chávez is in a coma and being kept alive by a life support system, while unfounded claims that he is already dead proliferate in the twittersphere – Venezuelans speculate that the government may be playing for time to work out how to manage the succession conundrum.

Certainly, the larger-than-life leader would not be an easy man to replace. To a large degree, his popularity is based on his charisma and a personality cult that cannot be bequeathed to a successor. This has sparked concerns that Mr Chávez’s political movement, known as “chavismo”, may not survive intact without him.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for any successor would be to keep the disparate movement unified, with a pragmatic military wing, a more radical, ideological faction, the state oil industry, an opportunistic business sector and the grassroots all vying for power and state resources.

Indeed, despite Mr Chávez’s stated wish that his followers should throw their support behind Mr Maduro if he is forced to leave power, the former trade unionist has competition. The main rival of Mr Maduro, who started out as a bus driver and is known to enjoy the favour of Cuba’s Communist government, is considered to be Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who has the support of the military and is well-connected with chavista business magnates.

If Mr Chávez cannot be inaugurated for his next six-year term, Mr Cabello would be the interim president, due to his re-election as president of congress on Saturday. Whoever prevails would inherit a country facing a range of intractable problems – not least, an increasingly fragile economy. While Mr Chávez sprayed money at his problems, as he presided over a 10-fold rise in oil prices over the past decade, his successor may not be so lucky.

“This kind of spending-led socialism can’t last,” argues Francisco Toro, a prominent opposition commentator.

The economy is burdened with a fiscal deficit of almost 20 per cent of gross domestic product, debt 10 times higher than it was a decade ago, one of the highest inflation rates in the world at 18 per cent, a currency that analysts say is massively overvalued and a flailing oil industry suffering from flagging production and mismanagement, on which the state depends heavily for its revenues.

The competing factions within chavismo will all demand their share of state resources. While Mr Chávez was able to comply, his successor may not find that so easy if oil prices fall, which could jeopardise the unity of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

But first, a government candidate would need to win an election, since the constitution stipulates that new elections must be held within 30 days if Mr Chávez dies or is otherwise incapacitated.

Although the opposition’s de facto leader Henrique Capriles suffered a humiliating defeat against Mr Chávez in presidential elections last October, pollsters say he would stand a better chance against any other government candidate. Still, the sweeping victory of PSUV candidates in regional elections last month, taking 20 out of 23 governorships, suggests that “chavismo” is an electoral force to be reckoned with even without Mr Chávez.

Ernesto Villegas, the information minister, has stressed that Mr Chávez remains in office and “has won a thousand battles and has reappeared when no one expected”.

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