What happens if Venezuela's Hugo Chávez misses his inaguration?

If Chávez can't attend his inauguration, his designated successor might be overshadowed by an interim leader.

Fernando Llano/AP
A person holds up images of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, right, and Venezuela's independence hero Simón Bolivar as people gather to pray for Chávez at Simón Bolivar square in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Dec. 11.

As has been widely reported, on Saturday night, Dec. 8, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made a nationally televised appearance to announce that he had suffered a reoccurrence of his cancer and to designate a successor, current Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolás Maduro.

The announcement came after he had reappeared in Venezuela only 24 hours earlier. President Chávez had gone to Cuba for treatment on Nov. 27. While it was announced that he would be receiving treatment in a hyperbaric chamber to “continue his recovery,” there was a great deal of speculation that it was something much more serious since his departure was not publicized and he had not made any public appearances or even tweeted for several weeks. The rumors only increased when it was announced that Chávez would not be attending the Mercosur summit [in] Brazil.

It seems clear that the primary purpose of Chávez’s weekend return to Caracas was to consolidate support for Mr. Maduro within the pro-government coalition and leave no doubts among the population as to who he wants to succeed him by creating a major media event. Not only did he name Maduro successor but had him swear before God, the people, the flag, and Simón Bolívar’s sword, to continue the revolution.

Among the major players in the Chávez government, Maduro is on the left side of the political spectrum. He has warm relations with the Castro brothers and has frequently visited Cuba. While much has been made of his humble origins as a bus driver, he was an important union organizer before Chávez came to power and has been Minister of Foreign Affairs for over six years. He is comfortable at the negotiating table, popular among the bases, and has not received significant accusations of corruption.

Since Chávez named Maduro Vice President the week after the presidential election, it has become conventional wisdom that Chávez sees him as his successor. Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution says that if the president were to die or be incapacitated in the first four years of his term, the Vice President becomes acting president and must call elections within 30 days. So why was Chávez’s quick trip back to Caracas and dramatic announcement necessary?

Chávez's pick vs. Constitutional law

It seems likely that Chávez’s fourth surgery is risky enough that he is not sure he will be able to assume his fourth term on Jan. 10. And Article 233 also says that if a president-elect were to die, resign, or be declared physically or mentally incapacitated before being sworn in, it is not the Vice President but the President of the National Assembly that becomes acting president. Currently that is Diosdado Cabello.

What is more, the Constitution does not specify what would happen if the president-elect is alive, has not resigned, nor been officially declared incapacitated, but is not able to be sworn in. Presumably in such a case it would also be the President of the National Assembly who would assume the presidency, since cabinet positions such as the Vice Presidency do not automatically carry-over from one term to the next but must be reconfirmed.

And this is the problem for Chávez. In a country in which power is so centralized in the presidency and in which there is so much money and so little accountability, incumbent’s advantage takes on extraordinary dimensions. It is likely that whoever becomes interim president will end up becoming the Socialist Party’s candidate. And while some in the Chávez coalition might protest a Cabello candidacy, if it seemed like he would win and was not stoppable, they would most likely applaud, because doing otherwise would be political suicide. So Chávez wants to make it absolutely clear that he wants Maduro, not Cabello, to be the candidate if he is not able to assume or complete his term.

Cabello is a former military officer and has been working with Chávez from the beginning. He has worked in a number of capacities, including governor of Miranda, minister of infrastructure, and vice president. He has been something like a “hatchet man” for Chávez, taking on some of the most difficult tasks – such as shutting down RCTV’s cable network. However, within the Chávez coalition, he is known as part of the “endogenous right,” is unpopular with the bases and is frequently accused of corruption. He is not strongly leftist and has cool relations with the Castro brothers; indeed he has never visited Cuba. Cabello is known for being pragmatic but cunning and ruthless. If he were to become acting president it is assumed he would do his utmost to outmaneuver Maduro and find a way to stay in power for more than 30 days. While Cabello has been a key player for Chávez on multiple occasions, it seems clear that Chávez does not want him to lead his revolutionary project forward.

One important element that has received little attention in all of this is that during his 48 hour stay Chávez repeatedly affirmed that the Constitution stipulates new elections within 30 days if he is not able to continue. Since the Oct. 7 presidential election many analysts have speculated that Chávez will seek a constitutional reform allowing the Vice President to fill out the presidential term instead of going to elections. Chavez’s repeated mentions of the actual provisions of the Constitution would seem to make such an initiative less likely.

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