DESPITE facing decisive defeats in the presidential and State elections held in late 2012, the right-wing-dominated Venezuelan opposition is still dreaming of recapturing power. The opposition parties are seeking to exploit President Hugo Chavez’s ill health to short-circuit the constitutional process and create a political crisis. Chavez, who was due to be sworn in for a third term as President on January 10, was not in a position to physically take the oath of office in the capital Caracas as he is recuperating in a Havana hospital following treatment for cancer. The opposition parties are demanding that a caretaker President be appointed and fresh elections be held immediately. They charged that the President was on “unauthorised absence” from his duties.
The United States State Department spokesperson told the media in early January that the Venezuelan government was “not being transparent” about the health status of the President. Venezuela’s Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said that an international campaign was under way to “destabilise” Venezuela and nullify the results of the October 2012 presidential election.
Venezuela’s National Assembly had earlier given permission to the President to delay the swearing-in ceremony, allowing him as much time as was needed to recover from the complicated cancer surgery he had undergone. Chavez suffered complications because of a lung infection following the surgery. Adan Chavez, who visited his ailing brother in Havana, dismissed the rumours spread by the opposition. He said the foreign media were in league with the opposition parties in “spreading lies” about the medical condition of Chavez. “We know that this is part of a dirty war spread by the necrophilic opposition. With the help of God, science and the people, our President will triumph in this new battle,” he said in Havana.
In a statement issued on January 12, Villegas said that the President’s health was improving. “Despite his delicate health state since his complex surgery on December 11, his general health has improved in recent days and the President is in strict compliance with his medical treatment.”
In a landmark ruling in the second week of January, Venezuela’s Supreme Court observed that there was nothing unconstitutional about the delay in holding the swearing-in ceremony. Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales maintained that it would be “absurd” to consider Chavez’s treatment in Cuba as “unauthorised absence” as charged by the opposition. A seven-member Supreme Court Bench unanimously decided that Chavez could take the oath of office at a later date as provided in the country’s Constitution. Morales pointed out that Chavez had received a new mandate from the people. The Supreme Court, while recognising the importance of the formal swearing-in ceremony, said that its delay should not be allowed to undermine the start of a new presidential term.
Article 233 of Venezuela’s Constitution states that new elections should only be called if the Supreme Court decrees “mental or physical incapability” of the President after certification by a duly constituted medical council with the approval of the National Assembly. Currently, Chavez’s status is that of “being absent from national territory”. He has been granted permission to do so by the National Assembly. Article 231 of the Constitution states: “If for any supervening reason the President cannot take office in front of the National Assembly, she/he will do so before the Supreme Court.”
Before leaving for Havana, Chavez had named Vice-President Nicolas Maduro as his successor if anything untoward was to happen to him. “If such a scenario were to occur, I ask you from my heart that you elect Nicolas Maduro as constitutional President of the republic,” he had said. The opposition parties maintained that they would not recognise Maduro as the Vice-President after January 10 as he was appointed to the post by Chavez and was not directly elected. Opposition leaders described the Supreme Court’s decision as a coup d’état being orchestrated from Havana. Opposition leader Henrique Capille, who had unsuccessfully challenged Chavez in the presidential election, said that the Supreme Court was “responding to the interests of a political party”. The opposition argues that the Constitution mandates that the Speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should be the caretaker President in the absence of Chavez. Cabello is also a close associate of Chavez. While announcing the National Assembly’s approval to delay the presidential inauguration, Cabello said: “President Chavez, this honourable Assembly grants you all the time you need to tend to your illness.” In the absence of Chavez, these two personalities will in all likelihood be playing an important role in running the country. Washington and the Western media are trying to spin stories that the ruling Socialist Party will fall apart in the absence of the larger-than-life-figure of Chavez. It is unthinkable that any leader in the ruling party will go against the wishes of the President and challenge his chosen successor.
The efforts of the opposition to politicise the emotive issue of Chavez’s fragile health condition only galvanised and united the “Chavistas”, as the supporters of Chavez are called. On January 10, the day on which Chavez was to be sworn in, a massive rally was organised in Caracas. More than 100,000 supporters converged near the presidential palace, wearing the trademark red “Chavista” shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “We are all Chavez”. Top dignitaries from 27 Latin American and Caribbean states, including the Presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Uruguay, were present on the occasion to show their solidarity with the Venezuelan government and the convalescing President. “My friends, the situation of our brother Chavez is a concern not only for the Venezuelan people but to all of those who are part of the struggle. The best tribute and solidarity with Chavez is to keep the unity between our countries,” Bolivian President Evo Morales said while addressing the rally.
Maduro, speaking at the conclusion of the rally, said that the opposition was “trying to manipulate and opportunistically take advantage of the circumstances of Chavez’s situation in order to destabilise the country”. He said the government had uncovered a plot by the opposition to stage violent acts and spark nationwide protests. During a joint appearance with Maduro, Cabello warned the opposition: “With sadness but firmly we tell you, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, don’t make a mistake. You will pay dearly.” Maduro, in his speech on the same day, emphasised that there “is only one transition here, from capitalism to socialism, with President Chavez at the head, elected, re-elected and ratified”.
The Venezuelan public is well aware that those who are now talking about constitutional niceties were the same bunch of capitalists, landlords, media moguls and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that supported the abortive 2002 military coup against Chavez. They were, until recently, vehement critics of the Constitution, which was approved in 1999 when Chavez was first elected to office.
Leaders from the region have also been visiting Havana to express their solidarity with Chavez. Argentine President Christina Kirchner, along with her Peruvian counterpart, Ollanta Humala, was in Havana in the second week of January to enquire about the health of the Venezuelan leader. Christina Kirchner recalled the crucial financial assistance extended by Venezuela when Argentina decided to take on the international financial institutions during the presidency of her late husband, Nestor Kirchner.
Jose Miguel Insulza, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States, said that the OAS fully respected the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decision regarding the postponement of Chavez’s presidential inauguration. “This issue has been resolved by the three pillars of the Venezuelan state—the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. They have chosen a way that will give for the situation [Chavez’s health], to become clear, that allows a waiting period for the President-elect to return and be sworn in,” said Insulza. A recent opinion poll showed that 68 per cent of Venezuelans approved of the delay.
As things stand, the government is doing its job competently despite the absence of the President. The Socialist Party won 20 of the 23 governorships in the State elections held in December. People are carrying on with their normal lives. For Venezuela and the people of Latin America, Chavez now symbolises the economic and cultural sovereignty of the continent. The radical changes that Chavez has brought about cannot be reversed easily.