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

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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.