Chávez’s Cancer Relapse: Can Venezuela’s Socialists Survive It?

President Hugo Chávez acknowledges that he could be sidelined for good, and a special presidential election might be on the horizon. Can his oil-fueled revolution function without him?

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

A portrait of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is seen from the backstage during a campaign rally in Yaracuy, Venezuela, Oct. 2, 2012.

During his re-election campaign this year, critics often accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of using his cancer to drum up votes. It seemed, they said, that the socialist, anti-U.S. firebrand spent more time comparing himself to Jesus Christ than he did stumping for his social and economic policies — and they certainly couldn’t resist a jaded expression when Chávez, like a resurrected messiah, declared himself cancer-free just as the campaign got into full swing in July. Whether or not Chávez purposely promoted the aura of a leader who could defeat death, his illness certainly wasn’t a political liability: he won the Oct. 7 election by an 11-point landslide.

But now, just a month before Chávez, 58, is to be sworn in yet again on Jan. 10 — he has ruled Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, for almost 14 years — the return of his cancer creates far more uncertainty. On Saturday night, Chávez announced that doctors have found new malignant cells and that he’ll have to undergo further treatment in Cuba in the coming days. He still won’t identify what kind of cancer he has, a secretive posture more befitting the ruler of North Korea than that of a modern democracy. But he did make it clear that he believes there’s a chance he might not be able to finish his next six-year term — and for the first time since he revealed that he had a large tumor near his pelvis removed in Havana a year and a half ago, he dared speak of a successor. “With all my heart,” he asked Venezuelans to “elect Nicolás Maduro as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

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Maduro is Chávez’s Vice President — but technically he doesn’t become President if Chávez should die or otherwise leave office before his upcoming inauguration or for quite a while after. Under Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, if a President departs before the swearing in or before finishing four years of his or her term, a new election has to be held within 30 days. It’s a peculiar article and one that the control-obsessed Chávez may have inserted in order to weaken the profile of his Vice Presidents — of whom he’s had eight. (Even during the 30-day period, for example, presidential authority is vested in the president of the National Assembly, not the Vice President, if the President departs before the inauguration.) Venezuelans are already going to the polls again this coming Sunday, Dec. 16, for gubernatorial elections in their 23 states; the prospect of another presidential vote within the next year — possibly the following month — only adds to their sense of political disarray.

That’s especially true given the very real possibility that Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) might not be as united as he hopes behind the anointing of Maduro, who is also his Foreign Minister. Most analysts see Maduro, 50, a former labor union leader, as Chávez’s compromise choice between the more ideological wing of the PSUV, represented by Chávez’s Marxist older brother Adán, 59, and a more pragmatic faction headed by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, 49. Most believe Cabello, who has close ties to the military and the business community, would be the most likely figure to challenge Maduro as the PSUV candidate should a special presidential election have to be held.

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The bigger and simpler question, though, is whether Venezuela’s socialists can really function without Chávez — first by keeping the Miraflores presidential palace. Neither Maduro, Cabello nor the dogmatic Adán Chávez has anywhere near the grassroots charisma of el comandante, a former army paratrooper officer who exploded onto the scene in 1992 when he led a failed but bloody coup against Venezuela’s ultracorrupt old guard before winning the presidency in 1998. The oil boom of the past decade has helped Chávez lavish worthy antipoverty programs on Venezuela’s barrios, but his Bolivarian revolution has also been marred by its own glaring corruption as well as South America’s worst murder rate, one of the world’s highest inflation rates and a generally mismanaged statist economy.

Those flaws helped cut Chávez’s share of the presidential vote from almost 65% in 2006 to 55% this year, and they’re bound to look more obvious to Venezuelan voters if and when his demagogic figure leaves the scene. But the other big question is whether Chávez’s feckless opposition, which has only in recent years begun to get its act together, can exploit the vacuum. A key gauge will be how well the opposition rebounds in this weekend’s provincial elections — which is why, say his critics, it’s not entirely cynical to ask if Chávez might have timed his latest health announcement to help galvanize the PSUV base. The stakes are particularly high in Miranda state, adjoining Caracas, where Chávez’s October opponent, centrist Governor Henrique Capriles, will have his gubernatorial re-election challenged by dyed-in-the-wool socialist Elías Jaua, Maduro’s predecessor as Vice President.

Either way, and whether or not Chávez survives his cancer, his revolution looks to be approaching its twilight, worn down by the kind of anachronistic left-wing governance that belies the “21st century socialism” he promised. His relapse is certainly a blow to a party that he’s left conspicuously ill prepared for his absence. But it also affords his allies the opportunity to prove that their revolution is more than just a one-caudillo show — and that it can defeat at least political death.

MORE: Latin King: How did a Weakened Chávez Retain Venezuela’s Presidency?