Venezuela’s Transition – A “Delicate Condition”

President Hugo Chávez is reported to be in a “delicate condition” following recent surgery to remove cancerous cells. He remains in a Havana hospital, remote from the economic and security problems of Venezuela. In his place, Nicolás Maduro governs the nation as the executive vice president with powers far in excess of those designated to a U.S. vice president. For all intents and purposes, the union leader with strong socialist inclinations has the constitutional power to appoint and dismiss ministers, negotiate with the National Assembly and to preside over the Federal Government Council. Were Chávez to die on, or after January 10 – the constitutionally designated inauguration day – Maduro would assume the office of the president and proceed to hold elections 30 days thereafter. It would appear that a peaceful transition can take place.

A peaceful transition becomes more complicated if Chávez dies before January 10. In that event, according to the constitution, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello shall assume the presidency and arrange for presidential elections. Cabello has indicated publicly that he is willing to postpone the inauguration, which would extend the time in which he is eligible to inherit the presidential responsibility. With Maduro as Chávez’ chosen successor, and the clear favorite of the Cuban government, there appears little risk of upsetting the pre-determined transition to Maduro. However, Cabello is a master behind-the-scene-player of Chavista factional politics and a former general in the Venezuelan army. He should not be discounted. Furthermore, a former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice has accused Cabello of masterminding a drug trafficking ring, and he is said to be on the DEA’s watch list.

However, the subsequent presidential elections provide a strong opportunity for the opposition forces, gathered together in the mesa de la unidad (MUD), to win. The MUD’s candidate in the October elections led a well-organized campaign that lost because it could not distribute housing, social services and was limited to three minutes per day of radio/TV time while Chávez monopolized the media with 10 hour per day use of national media. Despite the uneven, if not unfair, campaign terrain, Chávez did less well in 2012 than he did at the previous presidential election. The opposition remained united and stood behind its standard bearer, Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Maduro will be well placed to use the same tactics to win the presidency. He can offer to fulfill Chávez’ promise of 25,000 new homes in Caracas. He can dominate the airwaves and warn the electorate that a vote for the opposition is a vote for upheaval. We should not assume, therefore, that Chávez’ death will result in the death of Chavismo, known by the party’s official name the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV).

Should Capriles and the MUD demonstrate a sustained lead in the polls, the PSUV can call upon its 400,000 militia to provoke disturbances. These young men and women, wearing their signature Chávez red shirts, have been trained to fight against a foreign invasion. An internal electoral campaign is not a foreign invasion, unless rumors of U.S. support for the opposition provoke increased antagonism. Short of taking up arms, the militia can occupy roads and organize counter presidential rallies that result in numerous injuries, if not deaths. They might succeed in creating serious political unrest that justifies the call for “un estado de excepción” (state of exception, a.k.a. state of emergency). In this event, Article 337 of the constitution permits the executive vice president, together with his cabinet, to suspend temporarily citizens rights, with noted exceptions. According to Article 338, in the event of internal or external conflict which might threaten the security of the state, the state of emergency can last for 90 days with a further extension of 90 days. During that time, constitutional guarantees would be suspended.

Three factors work in favor of stability and against declaring a state of emergency: Cuba’s need to sustain the delivery of 90,000 barrel per day of subsidized oil, the China Development Bank’s interest on continued payments on its $42.6 billion loan to the Venezuelan government, and Washington’s desire to improve relations with Caracas and reintroduce the DEA into Venezuela. For several months, Maduro had discussions with senior officials at the State Department, and there is talk of resuming diplomatic relations at the level of ambassador.

Furthermore, Maduro faces significant economic problems. Severe macroeconomic distortions, an over-valued currency, capital flight and shrinking domestic production require responsible management of the economy and the support of the multilateral lending agencies, as well as the return of private investors. As Foreign Minister, Maduro was exposed to the realities of international pressures, as well as opportunities should he redirect the ship of state towards a stable, balanced and investor friendly management of the Venezuelan economy.