Rumors abounded this weekend about Hugo Chávez’s apparent critical health condition. The Nuevo Herald reported that the Venezuelan president could be suffering from prostate cancer. On June 9, while visiting Cuba, Chávez fell ill and was treated for a “pelvic abscess.” Since then, the loquacious caudillo, who for over a decade has flooded Venezuelan airwaves with endless TV addresses, has been conspicuously out of sight. All we have is a picture released to the media showing a frail Hugo Chávez holding onto Fidel Castro (aged 84) and his brother Raúl (aged 80).
Speculation increased on Saturday after Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations Minister, said that Chávez was waging a “great battle for his health” while admitting that he wasn’t doing well. But perhaps the most ominous statement came from Chávez’s older brother, Adán, governor of the state of Barinas, who warned yesterday that supporters of the president should be ready to take up arms to defend his revolution. “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” said the elder Chávez.
This is where things can get extremely ugly. Nobody knows what could happen to chavismo without Hugo Chávez. Many people expected Chávez to resort to violence next year in case he lost his reelection bid (a real possibility given popular discontent due to rising food prices, food and energy shortages, and increasing crime). This is why he created a socialist militia with tens of thousands armed civilians bent on “defending the revolution” no matter what. Also, Chávez promoted General Henry Rangel Silva as head of the Armed Forces after Rangel stated that the army would not allow the opposition to win the presidential election in 2012. However, in all these scenarios, Chávez was always the one calling the shots.
If Chávez passes away or is permanently incapacitated, the question becomes: Who will take over Venezuela and his political movement? The Constitution requires the Vice-president Elías Jaua to be sworn it as president. However, it is very likely that Chávez’s absence will open a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. During his 12 years in office, Chávez has diligently made sure that no apparent successor takes the spotlight. Caudillos don’t have real VPs, a situation that could lead to chaos if the caudillo dies while in office.
A historical parallel can be drawn with the passing of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1974. His wife, Isabel, was his Vice-President and she took over the presidency after Perón’s death, as required by the Constitution. However, her tenure was marked by the increasing violence of the “Montoneros,” a radical left-wing terrorist group that claimed to uphold the leftist legacy of Juan Domingo Perón. The situation reached a critical point when the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón with a military coup in 1976 and led a “Dirty War” against left-wing elements of society that resulted in the killing and disappearance of approximately 30,000 people in 7 years. Perón’s death and lack of a viable successor led to chaos and slaughter.
The driving force behind the different forces within chavismo is graft, not ideology. As Gustavo Coronel documented in a paper published by Cato in 2006, corruption is rampant in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and it permeates all levels of government, including powerful elements of the military. It is unlikely that those who have been enriching themselves in the last 12 years would call it quits if their leader passes away. A violent struggle could therefore ensue within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government.
Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement should play its cards carefully. If Hugo Chávez dies or is incapacitated, the opposition should demand that the Constitution be respected and Vice-President Jaua take over until next year’s presidential election. The international community, and in particular the Organization of American States, should also be assertive in stating that Venezuela would face international diplomatic ostracism (e.g., expulsion from the OAS, travel ban for regime leaders, freezing of their bank accounts, etc.) if elements within the government stage a coup or try to stay in power through armed struggle.
We will know the gravity of Hugo Chávez’s health condition by July 5th. He had called for a big international summit that day to celebrate Venezuela’s bicentennial anniversary. If he calls off the jamboree, or if he is absent, it will signal that his health has very likely gravely deteriorated, and speculation about his succession will be overwhelming.