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Dec 3, 2012 | 11:30 GMT

Venezuela: New Rumors of Chavez's Health Spark Succession Concerns

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has largely disappeared from public view since the Oct. 7 election; his last appearance was Nov. 15. His curious absence, along with recent reports that he is seeking medical treatment in Cuba, has set off perennial rumors regarding his deteriorating health. If Chavez dies within the next four years, Venezuela could undergo an extended period of instability and a replay of the October election, which could result in a political transition on a scale that Venezuela has not seen since Chavez was first elected president in 1999.

Three scenarios may unfold. If Chavez lives, his term will continue to face monumental political, economic and security challenges. If Chavez accepts his mortality and organizes a managed transition, a unified United Socialist Party of Venezuela would likely fare well in a snap election. If Chavez dies unexpectedly without a clear successor, a unified opposition — likely behind former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski — would stand its best chance to come to power in over a decade.

Speculation regarding Chavez's health increased in early November after Chavez repeatedly postponed the inauguration of his newly appointed Defense Minister, Diego Molero Bellavia. Venezuelan daily El Nacional cited sources in the military confirming that Chavez was unable to swear Morelo in due to poor health.

Chavez also was unable to attend both the Ibero-American Summit in Cadiz, Spain, and the Union of South American Nations Summit in Lima in November, which further fueled the rumors. Amid heightened speculation regarding his health, Chavez announced Nov. 27 that he was traveling to Cuba to receive hyperbaric oxygenation — a treatment used to treat bone decay, which occurs as a result of radiation therapy. This explanation, however, only raised doubts because Venezuelan hospitals have the equipment necessary for such treatment. Chavez has traveled to Cuba 11 times and has undergone three operations and several rounds of chemotherapy in the last 17 months.

The Venezuelan Embassy in Brazil has confirmed that Chavez will fly directly from Havana to Brasilia to attend the Dec. 6-7 Mercosur summit, and Chavez is rumored to be meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana in the coming days to discuss Colombia's negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Chavez's appearance at these two meetings will at least let the public see his physical appearance, if not the true state of his health.

Imagining a Transition

With the election now over, how might a political transition unfold if Chavez's health significantly deteriorates?

According to Article 233 of the 1999 constitution, if Chavez dies or becomes incapacitated while president-elect (in other words, before Jan. 10, 2013), power would pass to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who then would be required to call for a new election within 30 days. If Chavez dies in the first four years of his new term, newly appointed Vice President Nicolas Maduro would assume control and would similarly be required to call for a snap election. If Chavez dies in the last two years of his term, Maduro would govern for the interim until the 2018 elections.

To trigger a succession, Chavez would need to die, resign, be impeached, be permanently incapacitated physically or mentally as determined by a medical board designated by the Supreme Justice Tribunal and approved by the National Assembly, or abandon the presidency. Since Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela controls the National Assembly, it is highly unlikely that he would be unwillingly deposed.

Succession Scenarios

There are three scenarios that may play out in the event of a major change in Chavez's health.

First, it is important to recognize the possibility that Chavez could survive and continue to rule Venezuela for the next six years. Even if he becomes incapacitated, he could continue to cover up his illness and be granted liberties by the National Assembly to occasionally leave the country to seek medical treatments in Cuba. Chavez has proven able to hold on to power despite illness, and given his strong performance in the October election, his popularity is high enough to give him some political leeway. 

Assuming that there is a significant deterioration of his health, Chavez could arrange a managed political transition by clearly and unequivocally designating a successor — a process that may have already been initiated with the appointment of former Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolas Maduro to the vice presidency right after the election. Chavez could then resign and back a United Socialist Party of Venezuela candidate in a snap election. It would take a serious worsening of his health to do this; otherwise, he likely would have taken this route before the Oct. 7 presidential election. In the past, Chavez maintained his power by purposely preventing a potential competitor from emerging within the ranks of his party. However, faced with the inability to govern, Chavez has consolidated his inner circle of loyal supporters and all indications point to either Vice President Nicolas Maduro or National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello as Chavez's successor. Given Cabello's relative lack of popularity, Maduro is the most likely candidate.

If Chavez dies unexpectedly or without a clear succession plan, the transition likely will be much messier as various interests and factions within Chavez's party jockey for power. It remains unclear whether Maduro or Cabello would rise to the top. That said, Maduro is popular and stands a chance of beating a unified opposition candidate, while Cabello has influence within the party and with the Venezuelan military but lacks popular support. Each potential successor would need the other in order to consolidate control, so they could end up compromising in order to avoid political fracturing. However, if the United Socialist Party of Venezuela could not unify in the 30 days between Chavez's death and the snap election, the opposition would have a unique opportunity to gain power.

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