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?
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.
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.”
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.