A succession crisis is stalking Venezuelan society. President Chavez of Venezuela is again in Havana, after a complex six-hour surgery, his third in a year for an unspecified form of cancer. Just before the surgery, he returned to Caracas to address the nation. For the first time he spoke about what he wishes to be done if he is unable to return to the presidency. While Diosdado Cabello, President of the National Assembly sat to his right, Chavez endorsed, to his left, Nicolas Maduro, the Foreign Minister and his current Vice-President, as his successor if elections must be called. Chavez firmly and repeatedly asserted that, in this case, everyone should “vote for Nicolas Maduro.” As Vice-President, Maduro is already acting president while Chavez remains in Cuba.
I want to begin looking here at the issue of Venezuelan presidential succession, and what crises this may present for Venezuela society and then its implications for the country’s oil sector. Today, I look at the two key Chavista personalities poised to take over from Chavez, and next time, the opposition’s many difficulties in this crisis.
Hugo Chavez’ succession conundrum
What particularly complicates matters for Chavez now is that he is not only president, but also president-elect and constitutionally he must be present, in person, in Caracas on 10 January to be sworn in before either the National Assembly (AN) or the Supreme Court (TSJ). If he cannot, then under the 1999 constitution, on that day the president of the AN assumes the presidency of the republic, and new presidential elections must be held within 30 days.
One immediate complication is that the national electoral commission, the CNE, already asserted that a national election requires at least 90 days to organize. Perhaps this is true, or it is a delaying tactic to somehow allow Chavez time to return; which is not clear. In any case, the current president of the AN is Diosdado Cabello, a very close and old ally of Chavez. If Chavez fails to be sworn in on 10 January, Cabello would become the temporary president and Maduro would again be vice-president. If Maduro indeed then ran for president, he would be required to resign as Vice-President to run. (One cavet is that an election for AN president is scheduled for 5 January; but there is no indication Cabello will not again run and win.)
In truth, these events might sound rather ordinary for any country having a seriously ill president. Indeed, predictions that factional fighting might swell within the PSUV and lead to an immediate succession crisis are, in my view, overblown. In such an election, presumably the deceased or incapacitated Chavez would bring great symathy for the election of his chosed sucessor. However, there are slightly longer-term reasons forPresident Chavez and his Bolivarian movement to worry what might become of the revolution without Chavez. Two are particularly problematic.
Lack of a collective Bolivarian leadership & unified Party
One problem is the failure, or perhaps disinclination, of Chavez, during 13-years in power, to have developed any sort of truly collective top leadership or, more generally, a sufficiently unified PSUV party. On the contrary, Chaves persisted in micro-managing affairs of state–as witnessed by his marathon Saturday “Alo presidente” shows, and many other marathon speeches where he’d routinely dictate policy to any number of ministers. Eventually he stopped these only because he could not physically do it any longer.
As for the more general issue of a party to develop a more coherent, collective policy, he didn’t even deign to found a unified mass political party for his revolution until 2008—nine years after coming to office, and only after considerable chiding from Cubans, Lula, and other allies.
That party, the PSUV, is now an established force in Venezuelan politics, and has made Chavismo somewhat more organizationally capable than in the past, largely in electoral politics. In fact, Chavismo had become progressively worse at getting out the vote among its increasingly disgruntled and shrinking base during successive elections in 2006, Dec. 2007, Nov. 2008, 2010, and right up till October 2012’s presidential elections where absenteeism and “votos-castigos” were finally reversed by a grass-roots PSUV apparatus. However, the PSUV has never achieved the level of unity intended, and it remains a loose coalition of many small pro-Chavista parties held together largely by the personality of Chavez, as is his government.
[Aside: Chavez’ tendency is to leadership based on personal authority, as opposed to collective decision making and collective responsibility. His style is repeated, often even more banaly, throughout the state bureaucracy and national industries at every level, including especially in PDVSA. There are of course notable exceptions, but they are just precisely that. This characteristic is deeply rooted in the theoretical influences on Chavismo’s organizational notions. These come from a mix of sources, including the late-20th century left’s rejection of “vanguard parties,” combined with a post-modern fascination for leaderless, self-acting “multitudes”, along with the often cited populism and older Latin American military/caudillo traditions. As far as the practical origins of Chavismo organizational style, it suffers from having started as a secret, conspiratorial military organization that later sought to merge with small older left parties. In any case, the breakdown, everywhere, of effective organizational structures in Venezuela under Chavismo has permitted a spontaneous gravitation to personal-authority relationships still engrained in society from a centuries-long colonial, semi-feudal and dictatorial past.]
Lack of another popular leader
The second problem is that Chavez and the Bolivarian movement have failed to produce another leader with anywhere near to the appeal with voters that Chavez himself has enjoyed. Indeed, two of the very few close associates once imagined as possible presidential successors went on to embarrassingly lose their bids for re-election to high-profile public offices in 2008: Diosdado Cabello (who had already been governor of Miranda state for two terms lost to Henry Caprilles, the opposition’s recent 2012 presidential candidate) and Jesse Chacon (who had proven to be an incompetent mayor of the huge Petare barrio in Caracas, till then supposedly a bastion of Chavez support. He lost to Carlos Ocariz, an intrepid opposition community organizer there). After these setbacks, Chavez was constrained to quickly appoint Cabello and Chacon to posts as cabinet ministers.
Cabello & Maduro: TWO MEN WhoM Chavez hopes will succeed him
Diosdado Cabello even had difficulties getting elected early on within the PSUV itself. However, he was finally elected to the National Assembly in 2010 from his home district in Monagas. This provided a shortcut to his present position as President of the National Assembly–a post to which he was elected by a PSUV-controlled Assembly in 2012 shortly after having been appointed by Chavez as vice-president of the PSUV in 2011.
Cabello is well-known for the close relationship he has maintained with certain sectors of the armed forces ever since his military days with Chavez. In particular he reportedly aligns with sectors that do not like the country’s close association with Cuba, I will return to the very important figure of AN President Cabello shortly.
However, of all the close associates of Chavez, the one with some likelihood of winning a national election appears to be Nicolas Maduro. And it is no mystery why Chavez has made him his anointed successor, much in the style of the Mexican dedazo. Chavista functionaries whom I had asked as far back as summer of 2010, when Chavez cancer was first disclosed, gave the opinion that Chavez would eventually pick Maduro.
The greater electoral viability of Maduro in comparison to other leading Chavistas is notable. As foreign minister, since 2006, he has often been widely derided by opposition figures as an “ill prepared” and “illiterate” bus driver. In fact a former bus driver, Maduro does lack any formal university education. But, then, so did Lech Walesa and Lula. However, Maduro had an extensive pre-Chavista-era career as a transport-union organizer and leader, esp. among Caracas subway workers, working successfully under conditions of union illegality during the 1970 and 80’s, which implies a significant organizational and analytical competence. In addition, he, and his wife, a lawyer activist and also former President of the AN, played significant roles in Chavez’ being released from jail for his 1994 coup attempt, in Chavez’ political rise and his first election in 1998. In addition, Maduro was repeatedly elected to national legislature beginning shortly before Chavez attained the presidency, and became President of the AN before becoming Foreign Affairs minister.
“Maduro was elected on the MVR [Fifth Republic Movement] ticket to the Venezuelan Chamber of Deputies in 1998, to the National Constituent Assembly in 1999, and to the National Assembly in 2000 and 2005, representing the Capital District. The legislature elected him Speaker of the Assembly, a role he held from 2005 until 9 August 2006, when he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs.” [See: Maduro Wikipedia]
A currently serving Venezuelan diplomat, familiar with Maduro, pointed out to me that whatever roughness he may have had from his lack of formal education has been tempered considerably over the last several years by his experience as Foreign Minister, as he was constrained to deal seriously with world leaders who often do not agree with Venezuela’s positions, and learned to speak effectively while giving countless speeches abroad.
At the same time, to my own sensibilities, there is the repugnance of the policies Maduro has defended as Foreign Minister vis-à-vis especially Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, Assad’s in Syria, and the Bolivarian Republic’s total opposition to the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening). In addition, the fawning obsequiousness Maduro has displayed towards Chavez in recent speeches—calling him “our father” and speaking of “we his children” and such—shows him to be one who, even if he does have more administrative and analytical ability than others, and a track-record of capacity to get elected, unlike Cabello, Maduro does and says precisely what Chavez wants him to do, with no deviation.
This gets into some significant differences between Cabello as v. Maduro. This is an important issue as, quite evidently, Chavez intends for the two of them to rule cooperatively. I believe Chavez would have preferred to appoint Cabello.
In fact, it would not be the first time Cabello was President of Venezuela. Cabello very briefly took power in Miraflores in April 2002, after the right-wing usurper Carmona had left, but Chavez had not yet returned from his imprisonment. Cabello’s hubris in taking power until Chavez could be freed, is telling.
Cabello has been exceptionally close to Chavez. I was told by an insider I interviewed, who has often observed Chavez and Cabello together as well as Chavez and Maduro together, that the difference in these two relationships with Chaves is that, for Chavez, Cabello is “like a brother,” as they “were in prison together” and “in the army.” Chavez trusts Diodado “completely”.
When I asked about Cabello making some statement during a Chavez trip to Cuba that contradicted the official story being given by then-vice-president Elias Jaua, the answer was that Cabello knew the situation and so simply decided on the spot to say what he knew. Meanwhile, Jaua, even when he knows the situation has changed, will not say anything different from what he was originally told to say. My source added that Maduro is just the same as Jaua in this regard. I was told Maduro says exactly what Chavez tells him to say until told to say something different, because Chavez does not trust him like Cabello, that Cabello’s relationship “is different.”
To be continued … [Some Topics: the difficulty for the opposition to win an election against Maduro, the organizational weakness of the opposition,. and what this all mean to the Venezuelan oil sector, Faja production, PDVSA, etc.]