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Hugo Chavez
The usually ubiquitous leader has disappeared from public viewImage: AP

Chavismo without Chavez?

June 28, 2011

There are conflicting reports on the Venezuelan president's recovery following emergency surgery, prompting speculation he may be seriously ill. But can Chavismo survive without Hugo Chavez?


Officially, President Hugo Chavez is running Venezuela from his sickbed in Havana, where he underwent emergency surgery almost three weeks ago. But the usually ever-present leader has not been seen in public since his June 10 operation in Cuba to remove a pelvic swelling. Chavez has only made public contact via Twitter on June 24 and 26.

Government officials have reassured the public that Chavez is on the road to recovery. But no official details have been provided about his health problems, which is fueling speculation that the president may be terminally ill.

Latin American experts are divided on the implications of Chavez' extended stay in Cuba for Venezuela and the entire region. Nikolaus Werz, professor for comparative politics at the University of Rostock, said it shouldn't be overestimated, despite the fact that Chavez is communist Cuba's main economic and political ally.

"International politics don't work like they did during the Cold War anymore," Werz said. "Even if Chavez was no longer in power, Cuba and Venezuela would maintain their existing pragmatism in international relations."

But Günther Maihold, deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, disagrees.

"If Chavez cannot continue as Venezuela's president, Caracas will no longer support other Latin American countries in the name of international solidarity," Maihold said. "This is quite simply because the domestic crisis in Venezuela would be far too large to deal with other things, as well."

Chavismo without Chavez?

fidel castro and hugo chavez
The only photos released from Havana show Chavez with his mentor Fidel CastroImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Chavez plans to run for re-election in next year's presidential vote. But how does "Chavismo" - as his particular brand of socialism is known - stand without its major figure?

"I've asked myself the same question," Werz said. "I think the fact that it's difficult for us to even imagine such a scenario shows how far Venezuela's political system is geared to Chavez' figure. In other Latin American countries, which also have very personified politics, it would be difficult to predict who would succeed as party or country leader."

However, Werz added he doubted that Chavez would be willing to hand over power to Vice President Elias Jaua - even if his recovery were delayed.

"The Venezuelan constitution specifies that the vice president can take over state affairs on behalf of the president if he has a lengthy absence," Werz said. "But this transfer of power cannot even take place in Chavez' understanding, since he's not abroad but rather in the 'larger homeland'." Several years ago, Chavez called Cuba and Venezuela one big nation.

Chavez as a stabilizing factor

Opposition politicians are accusing the government of neglecting its constitutional duty to tell the people what is going on. But this uncertainty is not serving to benefit the opposition, which experts said is still too disordered to gain an advantage from the current political situation.

an opponent of chavez yells at a rally
Venezuela's opposition movement is not unitedImage: AP

According to Maihold, the sudden absence of Chavez at the top government level due to health reasons could lead to violence in Venezuela - comparable to the shock his assassination would cause.

"This is quite simply due to the fact that the leadership cult in Venezuela raises the question of who could even take over and how this succession would be shaped," Maihold said. "This would further exacerbate the political polarization we are currently observing in Venezuela. The conflicts would become more acute, and new and less transparent power constellations between Chavez followers and the opposition would result."

Such chaos could in turn pave the way for the classic scenario in which the military takes control in order to ensure national order.

"At the moment, the top military and police officials are busy with the official hard-liners and Cuban advisors," Maihold said. "The Venezuelans can thank God that Chavez is still alive. Otherwise they would find themselves in a difficult dilemma."

While the government maintains Chavez is fine, some rivals believe he has prostate cancer. The truth will come out next week: Chavez is due to host the July 5-6 regional summit on the Caribbean island of Margarita that coincides with Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.

Authors: Evan Romero-Castillo / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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