On cusp of new year, Chavez's health keeps Venezuleans fixated on future

Over the weekend, the Venezuelan government informed the nation that ailing President Hugo Chavez has suffered 'new complications' from surgery earlier this month.

Marcelo Garcia/Miraflores Press Office/AP/File
In this Dec. 8, 2012, file photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, (l.), holds up a copy of the Venezuelan national constitution as his Vice President Nicolas Maduro looks on during a televised speech at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela Dec. 8. Chavez has suffered "new complications" following his cancer surgery in Cuba, Maduro said Sunday.

Dec. 31 is typically a time to recap the biggest events of the year. But in Venezuela this year, news that President Hugo Chavez has suffered “new complications” after surgery on Dec. 11 has kept Venezuelans anxiously fixated on what’s to come in 2013.

In downtown Caracas, an annual free concert in Plaza Bolivar to welcome the New Year has been canceled, government officials said. They instead called on Venezuelans to unite in prayer for the prompt recuperation of President Chavez, according to the Venezuelan daily El Universal.

President Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for a recurrence of cancer. Since then, the nation has been faced with uncertainty about his chances for recovery, whether he’ll be able to attend his Jan. 10 inauguration – after winning a fourth presidential election in October – and if not, who will be Venezuela’s new president.

That uncertainty increased a notch after Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro went on television to say the following (translated into English by VenezuelanAnalysis): “Nineteen days after having undergone his surgical intervention, President Chavez’s state of health continues to be delicate; he has presented complications that are being attended to with treatment that is not without risk.”

Venezuela is, of course, not alone in looking at what lies ahead in 2013. US President Barack Obama and US Congress are scrambling to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” as they try to hammer out an agreement on taxes for the wealthy and budget cuts. And across the world, as the Monitor wrote in a round-up, nations are hoping that in 2013 they can bridge such political divides, some of them deadly. Venezuela, in hoping for more unity, was included on that list. But for now it is a nation holding its breath.

David Smilde, a guest blogger for the Monitor, told the Associated Press that the fact that Nicolas Maduro, the nation’s vice president, traveled to Cuba to personally meet with the president in recent days is itself telling. “The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge, only seems understandable if Chavez’s health is precarious,” said Mr. Smilde, who runs a blog on Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America.

The trip likely gave Mr. Maduro a chance “to be able to talk to Chavez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chavez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10,” Mr. Smilde said. “Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chavez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious.”

If Chavez does not recover, there are many questions about what is next for the oil-rich, Andean nation that has been dominated by Chavez since he took office in 1999.

According to the Venezuelan constitution, translated into English by the BBC, here is what should happen:

  • Article 231: The president-elect shall take office on January 10 of the first year of their constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any reason, (they) cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, they shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court.
  • Article 233: (...) When an elected President becomes absolutely absent prior to inauguration, a new election...shall be held within 30 days.
  • Article 234: When the President is temporarily unable to serve, they shall be replaced by the Executive Vice-President for a period of up to 90 days, which may be extended by resolution of the National Assembly for an additional 90 days.

But recently, a Chavez ally and head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said that the inauguration should be delayed – a move that the opposition has declared unconstitutional and casting doubt on what will happen. In the meantime, all of the problems that face Venezuela are on hold, as another guest blogger for Caracas Chronicles describes in his own personal experience here.

Chavez and his government, however, are trying to maintain a semblance of order – with Maduro sending out New Year’s greetings and avoiding mention of the radical changes that could await the nation in the year to come.

“Commander Chavez wanted us to transmit a special end of year greeting to Venezuelan families, who are gathered together over this period throughout the country; in particular he wanted to send a warm embrace to the children of Venezuela, and remind them that they are always in his heart," he said. "The embrace was extended to all of our people, so that they see in the year 2013 with love; a year which should bring the greatest of happiness to our homeland, as well as the definitive consolidation of our independence and national unity.”

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