While the health of Cuban President Fidel Castro is a closely guarded state secret — one that results in periodic “is he or isn’t he at death’s door” guessing games — one his closest political allies, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has been a relatively open book about his health struggles.
Chavez has battled a “cancer-related illness” for several years, undergoing three operations in Cuba and having two tumors removed in 2011. He pronounced his cancer gone, but in late November, announced that he would travel to Cuba for further treatment. By early December, the Venezuelan leader announced that he would undergo a fourth surgery, as doctors in Cuba had detected “malignant cells.”
The announcement shook the populace. The 2012 election that pitted the 58-year-old leader against opposition upstart Henrique Capriles was hard-fought, with charges that Chavez abused state powers to interrupt a Capriles broadcast, Chavez hard-liners becoming disenchanted and pre-election violence that was among the worst the country had ever seen. While Chavez did emerge victorious, it was clear that the much-vaunted “Chavismo” had taken a hit during the volatile campaign, and with a major economic crisis looming, it seemed inevitable that Chavez’s new six-year-term would get off to a bumpy start under the watchful eyes of an opposition growing in power.
With the return of his cancer, however, and an uncertain convalescent period, the country could be thrown into more turmoil than had been imagined. For better or worse, Chavez has been accepted as the strongman of the oil-rich country, wielding power and exerting influence during the course of his 14-year rule. Although Chavez designated a “successor” before leaving for Cuba, the man chosen, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, has inspired little enthusiasm, with Chavez supporters murmuring that he has little of Chavez’s charisma and the opposition scoffing that Maduro is a poor copy of Chavez.
Chavez is set to be sworn in for his new term on Jan. 10, but setbacks in his recovery, including a serious respiratory infection, have spurred doubts as to whether he will be able to take the oath of office on that date. Maduro is optimistic that Chavez will be fit, but there is already talk of what might happen if Chavez is deemed not fit, including a possible postponement of the swearing-in.
Per Venezuela’s constitution, if a president-elect dies or is declared incapacitated before the swearing-in, the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote would have to be held within 30 days. The coalition loyal to Chavez has derided any talk of new elections, but if Chavez’s health worsens or he succumbs to the disease, there could be a protracted power struggle that would bring neighboring Caribbean and Latin American countries into the fray. Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaraugua and Bolivia, for example, are dependent on Venezuela’s socialist ideals and subsidies to fuel their fragile economies. An unruly transfer of power and the inability of Chavez’s allies to keep military and leftist leaders in line could result in the rise of the opposition with the charismatic Capriles at its head.
There have been conflicting reports on the progress of Chavez’s recovery. Maduro has classified Chavez as being in a fight for his life, but also has said he is conscious and on the road to recovery. It will, nevertheless, be an uneasy wait for Chavez’s allies, his foes, Venezuelans, and of Latin America as they await the news, as Jan. 10 approaches and beyond, that could irrevocably change their country’s political destiny.