Hugo Chávez’s Constitution Is a Muddled Map Out of Venezuela’s Crisis

As the socialist President fights to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba before his Jan. 10 inauguration, his 1999 charter leaves Venezuela in governmental limbo

  • Share
  • Read Later
Miguel Gutierrez / EFE / Sipa USA

A woman walks by a graffiti painting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas on Jan. 2, 2013

Venezuela’s 1999 constitution is one of President Hugo Chávez’s proudest political props. The socialist leader likes to wave a pocket-size version of the charter, written shortly after he first took office 14 years ago, as often as Chinese communists used to brandish Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. But now that the 58-year-old Chávez may be fighting for his life in a Cuban hospital after difficult cancer surgery, Venezuelans are turning to his so-called Bolivarian constitution for guidance — and what they’re finding instead is a murky map that could send the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation into precarious governmental limbo this year.

At the core of the confusion is one word: permanently. The constitution says Chávez, who in October won re-election to a new six-year term, is supposed to be sworn in a week from today, on Jan. 10. But his condition would appear to preclude that happening. So here’s what Article 233 says: “When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election … shall be held within 30 consecutive days.” The article defines “permanently unavailable” (falta absoluta in Spanish) as death, resignation, removal from office, certified permanent physical or mental disability or a recall. None of those — at least according to information from Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who visited Chávez in Havana this week — apply to Chávez’s current situation. What to do then?

First consider the demi-divinity conferred on Chávez by his followers — who, thanks largely to his antipoverty programs, gave their firebrand comandante an 11-point re-election victory margin even though Venezuela suffers South America’s worst murder rate and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. As Chávez went under the knife last month, Maduro gushed, “You have to return, and we your children will be waiting for you. We’ve sworn to be loyal to you beyond this life … your soldiers forever.” Hence the reluctance of Maduro and other top Chavistas, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, to declare Chávez “permanently unavailable” to take office, despite the Jan. 10 deadline, as long as he’s still living. As Aristóbulo Istúriz, an influential Chavista and new governor of eastern Anzoátegui state, said today: “If the President can’t be sworn in [on Jan. 10], he should just remain President until he can be sworn in.”

Yet according to the letter of Chávez’s constitution, his current presidential term ends on Jan. 10. The constitution does tap the Vice President to fill in when the President “becomes temporarily unavailable to serve.” But does that directive apply after Jan. 10 if Chávez isn’t sworn in — if his presidency, in effect, isn’t rebooted — since technically there won’t be a President to fill in for? The Chavistas, as Istúriz hints, will most likely declare that the charter’s inauguration rule shouldn’t apply to a sitting President; they would then postpone the inauguration and let Maduro take the helm for as long as Chávez is incapacitated (or until Chávez dies, if his condition, in particular a respiratory infection, is as grave as some reports suggest).

And it’s not as if Chávez, who gets elected democratically but doesn’t exactly govern that way, hasn’t shown them how to finesse these things. One big example: although Venezuelans rejected his 2007 referendum bid to abolish presidential term limits — and although his constitution expressly prohibits holding a second vote on an issue during the same presidential term — Chávez went ahead and held another plebiscite in 2009 and got his way on the retry.

Here’s what the Bolivarian constitution is clear about: if Chávez dies before Jan. 10, then a new presidential election has to be held within 30 days, and during that time the National Assembly President “shall take charge of the presidency of the republic.” Should Chávez somehow be able to return to Venezuela to be sworn in on Jan. 10 but dies during the first four years of his new term, a new election still has to be held within 30 days, but this time his Vice President becomes President during the interregnum. Should Chávez die during the last two years of the term, then the Vice President simply completes the term’s lame-duck remainder.

If the Bolivarian succession process sounds convoluted, analysts say it’s meant to be. It keeps the Vice President post relatively weak and therefore discourages any challenge to Chávez’s authoritarian rule from within his United Socialist Party (PSUV) while he’s alive; but it aids the continuance of his left-wing, anti-U.S. revolution if he dies by giving the opposition a paltry 30 days to mount an election campaign. Still, what Chávez may not have expected, says Stephen Johnson, Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., is that the scenario would play out “at a moment precisely like this one,” when the opposition does have a viable candidate — Henrique Capriles, the centrist governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas — ready to hit the trail again after a relatively respectable effort against Chávez in October.

Before leaving for Cuba last month, Chávez broke the succession taboo and named Maduro, who is also his Foreign Minister, as his chosen PSUV candidate should a new election have to be held. Many analysts see a potential rift inside Chavismo between Maduro’s more socialist faction and that of the more pragmatic Cabello, who has particularly strong ties to the military and is expected to be re-elected as National Assembly President on Saturday. But George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of an upcoming book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, says Maduro would most likely secure both the PSUV candidacy and a victory over Capriles. “He’s more popular with the Venezuelan grassroots than either Cabello or Capriles,” he says.

Still, Ciccariello-Maher acknowledges there’s “sufficient vagueness” in the Bolivarian constitution to cause concern about how Venezuela navigates this crisis without conflict. Capriles and the opposition are angry about the Soviet-style secrecy surrounding both Chávez’s condition and the inauguration plan, calling it an “insult to Venezuelans.” Maduro is lashing out at the opposition for stoking rumors about the President’s imminent demise and for “poisoning Venezuelans with hate.” Even if Chávez never returns, the bitter polarization that has marked his presidency looks likely to remain. That’s at least clearer than his constitution is.

40 comments
EMAS
EMAS

There are so many Cubans in Venezuela that the next thing to happen is for them to take over the government of Hugo Chavez like Castro did with his revolution in Cuba. It is time for Venezuelans to stand up against a fictitious government and call for new elections.


EMAS
EMAS

What are the good people of Venezuela doing? What about going to put their complain at the United Nations? They should ask for new elections because their constitution is not clear, it is ambiguous.

Melo
Melo

Today Hugo Chavez is kidnapped in a undisclosed Hospital in Cuba and in Venezuela, no one knows for if he is alert or in a coma, or already dead for many days but nothing is disclose, because the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro need more time for placing their new and obedient henchman - Rafael Maduro, as the new president of Venezuela and puppet of the Castro brothers to keep their continuous exploitation of the Venezuelan treasure and because, it is well established that 11 million Cubans beggars under that failed communist totalitarian regime "led" by the mafiosi brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, are absolutely dependent for their survival, on the thousands of barrels of Oil and the $10 billion that annually the government of Hugo Chavez gives to Fidel and Raul Castro crucial to maintain alive, their regime and in return, the brothers have in Venezuela 50 thousand "technical advisers" that invaded Venezuelan society and government like a virus to help steal the wealth and oil of the Venezuelan people with the full approval and support of Hugo Chavez and his mafia "Chavizta" who benefit immensely from all the experience in intelligence, and surveillance and political demagogy that Fidel Castro can give them to stay in power together, with the help of those "Cuban advisers" always molding and changing public opinion in favor of Chavez  when not intimidating the opposition or teaching the Pro-Chaviztas how to gradually destroy a Democracy, suppress and monitor the people to make them slaves of the "State"..

The traitor is dead!. Long live the new traitor!.

WalterZiobro
WalterZiobro

Sooner of later we are all permanently unavailable; get used to it.

Perhaps, Venezuela can declare Hugo a saint and become a hagiarchy.

xinergias
xinergias

PRESIDENT CHAVEZ IS VENEZUELAN PEOPLE, NOW HE IS IMPOSIBLE DIED CAUSE HE IS INMORTAL. HE IS NOT JUST AN ONLY MAN, HE IS MILLON PEOPLE !!!

jlb10427
jlb10427 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@pattycolivares seems to me anything that crazy sob does is muddled

tego_flash
tego_flash

@Sparkiebaby @TIMEWorld what wiill happen to jamaica and oil?.. ._.

AmosJones
AmosJones like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

If Chavez dies we have a party to celebrate the blessed event.  That one was easy!

xinergias
xinergias

@AmosJones THAT IS THE "KIND" OF HUMANBEEN LIKE YOU. JUST SICK PERSON FOR MEDIA BRAINWASHER !!! ...YOU ARE SHAME !!!

jrhr4
jrhr4

@pedrojvegas @rodulfoprieto cuando no existe la division de poderes caemos en el totalitarismo. El prob no es la Const esta no da respuestas

RodulfoPrieto
RodulfoPrieto

@jrhr4 @pedrojvegas El problema va más allá de la división de poderes. No hay estado de derecho. No hay respeto por las instituciones.

jrhr4
jrhr4

@RodulfoPrieto @pedrojvegas y el totalitarismo es consecuencia de la no existencia de division de poderes

jrhr4
jrhr4

@RodulfoPrieto @pedrojvegas pero creo que las dos falta de estado de derecho e instituciones es consecuencia del totalitarismo

pedrojvegas
pedrojvegas

@RodulfoPrieto @jrhr4 y queda quien hace e interpreta las cossas como les da la gana!

jrhr4
jrhr4

@pedrojvegas @rodulfoprieto el problema es que la respuesta la tiene que dar el Poder Judicial quien interpreta la Const en estos casos

jrhr4
jrhr4

@pedrojvegas @rodulfoprieto el problema no es la Const ahi no van a estar las respuestas y no tienen que estar ahi tampoco

LeBow
LeBow

RT @drexel_coas: @TIME talks to #Drexel prof Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher about Hugo Chávez and Venezuela's constitution and future...

cocap
cocap

@GerverTorres lastima que su fuente "acadèmica" es un valet de Dussel... Terrible.

GerverTorres
GerverTorres

@cocap aún así el artículo no es nada malo

cocap
cocap

@GerverTorres cierto.

SteveRodriguez
SteveRodriguez like.author.displayName 1 Like

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

 Tim, I am sure you are a nice person who is a competent and respected journalist.  But this article reads as if the rule of law MATTERS in Venezuela.  Since it does NOT, Chavez shall remain President until he dies, and the "law" will accommodate whatever circumstance it must to maintain Chavez in power. 

Silver
Silver

Sorry Murray.....venezuela is rich in resources and rich in leadership, i bet usa want to be like them lol

AdamSmith1
AdamSmith1

Learning to trade has been the answer to my dreams, and where I learned how to trade because I've never traded before is a place called Traders Superstore. These guys are great so helpful to a new trader like I was, if you get stuck with something or need help they are there to help you and very knowledgeable in trading. So I tell people stop working for somebody else and work for yourself, just learn to trade.

murray
murray

the king is dead; long live the king! will his successor be any worse? is it the leadership or the people or both that determines how well a country is run? Venezuela and Cuba have much in common.  rich in  resources; poor in leadership.

xinergias
xinergias

@murray AT USA THERE ARE MANY "GREAT" LEADERSHIP LIKE PALIN, BUSH OR OTHER GARBAGE ?!

condormar55
condormar55

@waraira65 THIS ARTICLE CONFUSES THE READER, IT USES ART 233 INSTEAD OF USING ART 231 OF VENEZUELAN CONSTITUTION.

xinergias
xinergias

@condormar55 THAT IS THE  IDEA...CONTINUE CONFUSING TO MANIPULATE MIND AND WASHINGBRAIN...!

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

I am glad that these questions are coming up.  I was planning to move to Venezuela for retirement.  Now ... I am concerned.

Melo
Melo

In 2007 Hugo Chavez fail in modifying the Venezuelan constitution very radically as was his wish but, in 2008 he came back stronger and with more money and treats and once again, and wile serving the same term, he proposed for referendum and against the letter of the constitution, a second vote on the same article he really needed and wanted to "amend" and finally in 2009 he manege to pass amendments to the Venezuelan constitution on articles 160, 162, 174, 192 y 230 effectively abolishing terms limits on any official post of government or on presidential term's making him self and his supporters inside government, totally re-electable and self supporting,  just like Rome's senate and throne but in this case, whit more corruption and more banana wreath that laurel..
Hail Hugo Caesar! - and remember. “all glory is fleeting”..  (cancer says so)

MichaelBergsma
MichaelBergsma

It is not who votes but who counts the votes that matters. Especially in Venezuela.

ElioCequea
ElioCequea

"One big example: Although Venezuelans rejected his 2007 referendum bid to abolish presidential term limits—and although his Constitution expressly prohibits holding a second vote on an issue during the same presidential term—Chávez went ahead and held another plebiscite in 2009 and got his way on the retry."

Not exactly! In 2007 the issue was changing more than 40 articles on the Consitution. The "issue" in 2009 was changing only one article.