Is Hugo Chávez Preparing Venezuela for His Departure?

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Miraflores Palace / Reuters

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez holds the signed new labor law during a national TV broadcast in Caracas on April 30, 2012

“Get your personal affairs in order.” It’s the hardest thing doctors have to tell cancer patients who are as ill as media reports suggest Hugo Chávez is. With an election looming in less than five months, the 57-year-old Venezuelan President would also need to get his political affairs in order — and many believe the socialist leader took the first step last week when, before going to Cuba for more treatment, he named a “council of state” as a presidential consulting body. But the council’s murky role is now as much a source of morbid speculation as Chávez’s health is, and that has raised the level of tension and uncertainty inside the home of the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves.

When Chávez announced the council on May 1 — its eight members, including Vice President Elías Jaua, are all loyal Chavistas — he only ordered it to draft a plan for withdrawing Venezuela from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. (The commission, an arm of the Organization of American States, or OAS, has regularly butted heads with the often authoritarian President and his left-wing revolution.) But since then, pundits across the hemisphere have surmised that the council’s real purpose is to steer Venezuela and Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) through a chaotic transition after his death. That includes picking his replacement, if need be, on the Oct. 7 presidential ballot. “Chávez is setting up a mechanism for the final phase of his presence in this world,” one anti-Chávez analyst told the Miami daily El Nuevo Herald.

(MORE: Of Chávez’s Cancer and Vitriol)

Chávez has refused to disclose what kind of cancer he’s battling, and no one but he and his Cuban doctors knows for sure if he’s terminally ill. For his part, Chávez repudiated reports of his impending demise this week from his hospital bed in Havana, insisting in his typically martial rhetoric that he’ll soon be back “on the first line of battle … fulfilling my duties as head of state.” In Caracas, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, oft mentioned as a successor, said Chávez remains the PSUV’s “sure candidate” for October.

But either way, it’s hard to imagine Chávez, who has ruled Venezuela for 13 years and is seeking another six-year term, letting anyone but himself choose his successor while he’s still alive. And given the mythic status el comandante holds among his largely poor and working-class base — and the mass sympathy he’s garnered since his cancer was diagnosed last summer — it’s even harder to think his lieutenants would risk alienating that base by picking someone before Chávez is gone.

Yet if Chávez’s cancer is indeed so advanced that he could pass away before October, then the importance of the council of state — the first Chávez has ever created even though it’s written into his 1999 constitution — becomes “very big,” says Javier Corrales, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Amherst College. And that starts, Corrales says, with the move to pull Venezuela out of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which has criticized Chávez for, among other controversies, arbitrarily disqualifying scores of opposition politicians from running for office in recent years.

Under one worst-case scenario, say analysts, the council could, with the approval of the largely Chavista military, declare a state of emergency and delay the election (if not outright cancel it) to give whomever replaces Chávez more time to build a bond with voters. Such a constitutionally questionable move would in turn provoke angry protests from the opposition, which Chavista security forces would have to put down — preferably without having to answer to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. “The effort to take Venezuela out of [the commission] is serious in that regard,” says Corrales. “There’s a fear it suggests the Chavistas are preparing for turbulence.”

Even if the council doesn’t pull a stunt like suspending the election, the PSUV’s concerns about a Chávez replacement not catching fire with the electorate are valid. Few, if any, of the possible successors being mentioned possess the President’s firebrand charisma. And the former army paratrooper officer has always made sure that his deputies share as little of his power and limelight as possible. Despite his illness, Chávez still leads opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 39, governor of Miranda state, by double digits in some voter polls. But the more centrist Capriles — the first viable challenger Chávez has ever faced — defeats any of Chávez’s touted replacements in those same surveys.

(MORE: Can Capriles Beat Chávez?)

What’s more, government insiders say Chávez’s illness has exacerbated a split in the PSUV ranks. The more hard-line socialist faction, led by Jaua and Chávez’s older brother Adán, is vying with the more pragmatic bloc that includes Cabello, himself a former army officer, and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, a former union leader.

According to the Caracas daily El Nacional this week, global financial and security firms believe Maduro will emerge as the PSUV’s standard bearer should Chávez die or have to drop out of the race. El Nacional quotes the Texas-based Stratfor intelligence agency calling Maduro “the regime’s most pragmatic” minister, while the New York financial firm Nomura believes he’s “a less polarizing figure inside Chavismo” who can “quickly unite its different tribes.” Focus began shifting to Maduro last month, in fact, when he accompanied Chávez to Cuba for a round of radiation treatment.

For now, the council of state’s main occupation, besides divorcing Venezuela from the OAS human-rights body, is to aid the President with day-to-day government decisions — which Capriles and the opposition have for months insisted the control-obsessed Chávez has to start delegating. Even so, says José Manuel Puente, an economist at the Institute of Higher Administration Studies in Caracas, “Until his last breath, Chávez will be taking all the decisions.” The council, which also includes the Machiavellian former Vice President José Vicente Rangel, “is a preventive measure on Chávez’s part,” says Puente, “a mechanism of precaution” to ensure his revolution doesn’t implode if and when he departs the scene.

But it may also be a healthy sign to Chávez’s followers that they no longer have to remain in denial about his condition. Or about the condition of their revolution — which, like their inflation- and crime-plagued country, has for 13 years been too much a one-man act — and its real vulnerability in the October election. Still, Chávez has always held power in large part by keeping friends and foes alike guessing what he’ll do next. The council of state brings one more element of uncertainty to his passion play — a reminder, says Puente, that “if anyone here tells you they know what’s going to happen next in this drama, they’re lying.”

MORE: Chávez’s Cancer Mystery: What if Venezuela’s President Doesn’t Run for Re-Election?

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