Crisis looms in Caracas - Venezuela begins to think the unthinkable as Hugo Chavez fights for his life

Next week, the president was meant to be basking in the glory of his fourth inauguration. But as he reportedly nears death his country’s economy lies in tatters

A shroud of political doubt enveloped Venezuela today as rumours grew that President Hugo Chavez may be close to death in a Cuban hospital or, at the very least, will not be well enough to make his own inauguration to a new term of office in just five days’ time.

While top lieutenants of his socialist, anti-US government still have not provided full details of the President’s condition they are not hiding its seriousness, revealing in public statements that he is suffering a “severe respiratory infection”.  Mr Chavez, leader of the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation and one of the world’s most divisive political figures, has not been seen in public since undergoing cancer surgery in Havana on 11 December.

Few now believe he will be fit enough to leave Cuba in time for his inauguration to a new six-year term, which is due to take place in Caracas next Thursday. Yet his ruling socialist party, the PSUV, has struggled to explain what would happen were he not able to attend, in part because the leftist Bolivarian constitution that Mr Chavez himself helped craft over a decade ago offers no clear answer.

A parade of important visitors has been at the President’s bedside in recent days as if to confirm the gravity of his plight, including his elder brother Adan, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, whom he designated his successor before leaving for Cuba last month.  Mr Maduro and Mr Cabello have been forced to deny they are in fact rivals to replace him.

“[He] has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commander Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment,” the Information Minister, Ernesto Villegas, said on Thursday night in a statement on national television.

The secrecy surrounding the President’s condition has led to speculation that Mr Chavez might already be dead.  Medical experts have also speculated that mention of a “respiratory deficiency” suggests he is on a ventilator. “He might be, he might not be. One can have a severe respiratory condition but not yet need a ventilator,” noted Dr Michael Pishvaian of Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Centre in Washington. But it could be “a very ominous sign”, he added.

Political tensions back home are mounting, with top government spokesmen accusing both the opposition and the international media of fomenting rumours about the President’s health.  “The only transition in Venezuela is the transition to socialism,” Mr Maduro said in a live address on state television, before he took a swipe at “the bourgeois hucksters and the right, who have done so much damage to our fatherland”.

The constitution makes clear that were Mr Chavez to die before next Thursday – or be somehow “permanently unavailable” – new elections would be held within 30 days. Mr Maduro would run as the ruling party candidate and Mr Cabello would stand in as President in the interim.

If Mr Chavez is alive but not able to attend, the situation is much more complex. Some Chavez allies say that the inauguration should simply be delayed.  “If the President can’t be sworn in, he should just remain President until he can,” suggested Aristobulo Isturiz, an influential supporter and new governor of eastern Anzoategui state. “The President has a right to recover.”

If Mr Chavez cannot take the oath before the National Assembly, as the constitution requires, there may be some leeway for him to do it instead before the Supreme Court. That has led some to suggest that members of the court could travel to Havana and have him take the oath there. 

One opposition figure, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, wants an independent commission sent to Cuba to assess the President’s situation. “I think it’s our right to go there and see what’s going on,” he said. “Enough mysteries. Venezuela isn’t a colony of Cuba.”

Should elections be called, Mr Maduro will have to take the good and the bad of the Chavez legacy to make his case. Venezuelans have seen poverty cut by half since 2004 and a broad extension of healthcare and education opportunities, but they also face sky-high inflation and rising crime rates as well as a decidedly dicey fiscal outlook for the years ahead. He could face a tight race with opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, a state governor and seasoned campaigner.

“President Chavez has bequeathed the nation an economic crisis of historic proportions,” Moises Naim, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, wrote recently in a piece in The New York Times.

Life after Hugo: What would happen?

Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela’s Vice-President would take over if Hugo Chavez’s health deteriorates further. If the President does not survive his current term, Mr Maduro – a former bus driver – would take power until 10 January, when it ends, and Diosdado Cabello would then become President until elections are held 30 days later. If Mr Chavez’s health fails after he is inaugurated for a new term, Mr Maduro would take over for 30 days until the new elections are held.

Diosdado Cabello

The National Assembly President, an ex-army officer with close links to the Venezuelan military, flew to Mr Chavez’s bedside on Thursday, amid opposition rumours of a split with Mr Maduro over the succession. On his return Mr Cabello denied the rumours, insisting: “We know what we will do.”

Henrique Capriles

The 40-year-old governor of Miranda, the country’s second- most-populous state, staged a  highly effective campaign against Mr Chavez in elections in October last year. Youthful, energetic and backed by a unified opposition, he is seen as  the most likely candidate to face Mr Maduro or Mr Cabello in a vote.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links