Death of Chávez leaves immense void
Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez react to the announcement of his death outside the hospital where he was being treated in Caracas yesterday. Photograph: Reuters
Such was his dominance over all aspects of Venezuela’s public life during his 14 years in power that Hugo Chávez’s death undoubtedly leaves an immense void at the heart of his country’s political world.
But paradoxically, it also provides a chance to bring an end some of the uncertainty that has increasingly gripped the South American country since Mr Chávez was last seen alive in early December just before he travelled to Cuba for treatment.
In the three months since his sombre farewell address to his countrymen, his government had struggled to maintain the fiction that he was still in charge amidst rumours that he was in fact fighting for his life.
With no sign of him returning from Cuba in January, a Supreme Court packed with Mr Chávez’s supporters went so far as to threw constitutional propriety out the window when it relieved him of his own constitution’s obligation to present himself for swearing in for a third presidential term on January 10th, choosing to believe his aides’ claim he was running the country from his hospital bed in Havana.
The opposition cried foul and demanded the activation of a constitutional provision for a medical commission to examine whether the president was fit for office. The Supreme Court judges - in a ruling that seems even more cynical today - said they saw no grounds to do so.
Now yesterday’s announcement of his death at 58 at least presents his government the chance to restore constitutional propriety and by following the constitution and calling elections within 30 days. Before he left for Havana Mr Chávez told supporters if he was unable to return they were to vote for his vice-president Nicolás Maduro. A former union leader, he represents the civilian, left-wing branch of the Bolivarian Revolution and is close to the Castro regime in Cuba.
If Mr Maduro is confirmed as the candidate for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, he will be the favourite to win. Last October, Mr Chávez beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles by more than one and a half million votes to win a third term.
The vice-president lacks Mr Chávez’s charisma and extraordinary campaigning skills but can expect to politically profit from the emotional aftermath of his boss’ death. For all his economic mismanagement and authoritarian traits Mr Chávez’s redistribution of the country’s oil wealth to the country’s poor was electorally unbeatable in his lifetime and provides a rich political legacy on which his party can draw.
But should Mr Maduro win as expected it is inconceivable that as president he would as president dominate Venezuela in the manner of Mr Chávez and will likely have to share power with the Bolivarian Revolution’s other main component, the military men who came to exert increasing influence in recent years.
Their leader is Cabello Diosdado, who as head of the national assembly is acting president following Mr Chávez’s death. This military faction is considered more pragmatic - and corrupt - than many of their civilian colleagues and is said to be unhappy about Cuba’s influence in Venezuela’s secret service and armed forces.
But despite hopes among the opposition that chavismo will fragment without the glue of Mr Chávez's authority its various groups have strong motives to work together. Despite its claims to be socialist the Bolivarian Revolution has created powerful new economic groups, many of whom accumulated great wealth through the corruption that eventually came to sap Mr Chávez’s movement of its moral authority. These so-called ‘Boligarchs’ would be loath to account for this wealth should the opposition manage to weaken their grip on the presidential palace and the control over the courts that goes with it.
But without Mr Chávez boundless enthusiasm for reshaping his country it is conceivable the Boligarchs will ally with the military pragmatists to protect their wealth under the banner of chavismo, but without their deceased leader’s zeal for revolution. Economic pressures could push them in this direction. Reform is desperately needed. Revolutionary mismanagement of the crucial oil sector means production is in long-term decline. There is a yawning budget deficit and public indebtedness is rising as the government is forced to borrow increasing amounts from China to fund the regime’s give-away populism.
Cuts to public spending are enormously risky for regimes that have built their support in such a manner and so those with most to lose from Mr Chávez’s death might not be his own followers in Venezuela but rather his allies in the region.
The dead president’s largess was worth billions each year to the regime in Cuba and was fundamental in helping its communist economy recover from the deep depression which followed the collapse of its last patron, the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, subsidies to the government of Daniel Ortega are estimated to be worth around eight per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP. Such foreign largesse might be cut back by Mr Chávez’s political heirs as they seek to get to grips with the economic mess they inherit at home.
These two socialist allies of Mr Chávez might yet find they have most reason to mourn the passing of El Comandante.