Photo: Foro do Eixo via Flickr
CARACAS, Venezuela — Minerva Nuñez watches Venezuela’s state television hours each day, waiting for the latest news about cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez.The updates are often delivered by Vice President Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver who Chávez anointed as his successor before leaving for Cuba and his fourth operation for cancer in the last 18 months.
“I don’t trust Maduro and I don’t believe what he’s telling us about the president,” said Nuñez, a 49-year-old nurse who has voted for Chávez in each of his four presidential runs. “He’s just another politician out for his piece of the pie.”
On Tuesday, Maduro told the Venezuelan Telesur television network that Chávez’s condition is “delicate” three weeks after his cancer surgery.
“He’s totally conscious of the complexity of his post-operative state and he expressly asked us â€1/8 to keep the nation informed always, always with the truth,” Maduro said.
As Chávez loyalists worry that their hero may not return, his regime leaders face the dilemma of inheriting a socialist revolution whose strength is due largely to love for Chávez, not the regime.
Should Chávez die after 14 years in office, Maduro will have to convince Chávez’s supporters that he is capable of carrying “Chavismo” beyond its personality cult foundation.
“Maduro would probably lose right now between 40(per cent) and 50(per cent) of the people who voted for Chávez in the October presidential elections,” said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant. “He’s a president in training.”
Chávez, who hasn’t been seen since Dec. 11, has been centre stage in Venezuela’s politics for 14 years. His claim to be the saviour of the poor and folksy speaking style has inspired an almost messianic devotion carefully massaged by the state-controlled media.
Maduro, 50, seems ill at ease in public. He has taken on a partisan tone in speeches as he tries to maintain unity among various factions in Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
“I have my doubts about whether Maduro can unite these diverse constituencies (in the PSUV) to the same degree as Chávez,” said Nikolas Kozloff, an analyst and author of “Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.” ”He is one of the working class but I’m not sure he commands a lot of following within the armed forces.”
Unlike Chávez, who was a former paratrooper and officer, Maduro has no military experience. He came to Chávez’s attention when as a union leader he helped Chávez win release from prison following a coup attempt. He is close to Cuba’s Castros as is Chávez, and was named foreign minister after serving as president of the National Assembly.
Whether Maduro can step into the job is in question. Chávez’s term ends Jan. 10, and the constitution says he must be sworn in to a new six-year term that day by the National Assembly or the Supreme Court.
Failure to do so would prompt a call for the creation of a commission to determine whether Chávez is fit to serve. If not, Maduro would take over temporarily until new elections could be held. If the finding comes after Jan. 10, the president of the National Assembly takes power until new elections can be held. The assembly president is Diosdado Cabello — a military man with ties to the army.
Some of the president’s supporters have suggested that the inauguration be postponed. The country’s opposition movement led by former governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in October, says the proposal is unconstitutional. In any event, Capriles said he does not think Chávez’s regime can survive the death of its leader.
“I have my doubts about Chavismo without Chávez,” Capriles said in a recent interview with El Universal newspaper. “Any leadership without Chávez appears to me to be profoundly vulnerable.”
That may be a reason the government is reluctant to give details about Chávez’s illness. The public has yet to be told what type of cancer he has or his prognosis, leading to rumours. Some Venezuelans believe that Chávez may have already died, while others say he is faking illness to gain support.
“I really doubt whether Chávez is sick,” said Javier Martinez, a 30-year-old industrial engineer. “He could be pretending to be sick to get sympathy for his supporters and policies.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economic woes are mounting. During the presidential campaign Chávez ramped up social spending, depleting international reserves and widening the fiscal deficit to about 12(per cent) of gross domestic product. Imports have fallen and people are seeing shortages of basic food items, such as coffee, sugar, corn meal, margarine, cooking oil and meat.
Venezuela’s bolívar is now pegged at 4.3 to the dollar. Some suggest that a devaluation could take it to 8 to the dollar, making it easier to pay off international debts. The black market rate ranges from between 15 and 20 bolívars for $1.
But a devaluation of the currency by the government would cause inflation, raising prices for consumer goods further and cut into the regime’s support among its most ardent loyalists, the impoverished.
Despite the problems left by Chávez for Maduro, analysts say he is the odds-on favourite to succeed Chávez because he has his blessing and the resources of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The party can exploit the proceeds of the oil industry to pay for social programs and propaganda efforts;, the opposition had a poor showing in governor races in December and has few funds.
“Who could have imagined Chávez as president in 1998?,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela. “Reality has a way of changing our perception of what is possible.”
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