What Chávez inherits from Chávez

The Venezuelan president’s next term will hinge on the economy, his health problems and the battle to succeed him

What awaits Venezuela after Hugo Chávez’s latest victory? Four main issues will grab the attention of the government and the nation. First, the toxic economic legacy that Hugo Chávez inherits from himself. Second, the president’s precarious health. Third, the succession battles among his closest collaborators. And fourth, Chávez’s attempts to ensure that in case he is no longer able to perform his duties, he gets to designate his successor without having to call new elections, as is now prescribed by the Constitution.

The economy. President Chávez begins his new mandate with an economy devastated by the policies he himself implemented. The situation is terrible: the country suffers from the world's highest inflation; the exchange rate and international reserves are in free fall; imports which, despite being five times higher than they were 2003, cannot alleviate chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic products; oil output is declining and the refineries are blowing up; agriculture and manufacturing production has sunk to record lows; the debt is ballooning (in 2007 public debt was less than $30 billion, and now it exceeds $200 billion) and massive labor unrest is spurred by wages vaporized by inflation. The distortions have reached levels that will soon force the president to make economic decisions far more difficult and unpopular than any he has had to make since he came to power in 1999.

Hugo Chávez’s health. The president is not well. Multiple surgeries and repeated treatments with radiation and chemotherapy have failed to cure him. In top official circles in several countries the consensus is that the Venezuelan president’s health is precarious, and that the likelihood that he will be cured is small. The evolution of his health will mold the country’s political evolution in the next few years. Biology may be more important than ideology in shaping Venezuela's path in coming years. The president knows this; so does his inner circle.

Succession anxieties. Hugo Chávez has just designated as vice president Nicolás Maduro, one of his closest collaborators. In view of the leader’s precarious health, this appointment is now more important than in the past, and it is safe to assume that succession was one of the president’s considerations in making this decision. But Maduro is not the only one with the opportunity, and the desire, to succeed Chávez. Several others among the president’s allies have the credentials, the money and the links with military and political groups and other influential international actors. These other aspirants will not passively watch as one of their contenders takes over from the president. They know that the pattern set by Hugo Chávez implies that once in power you do whatever necessary to keep it. And that it is possible to hold on to it for decades. What is at stake is the biggest political prize in the Americas. Under Hugo Chavez's rules, not even the president of the United States has so much unchecked power as the Venezuelan head of state.

The president's finger or the people’s votes? Who gets to decide who will rule Venezuela if Hugo Chavez can't? The Venezuelan Constitution establishes that if the president cannot carry out his functions, elections must be held. Given the circumstances, this is a very inconvenient law for Hugo Chávez. In his 13 years in power, whenever a law has been inconvenient to him, the president has changed it. There is no reason to expect that he will not do the same in this case. In the president’s absence, the ideal outcome for Chávez and for the continuance of his political project would be for the vice-president (unilaterally picked by the president) to conclude the term until 2019.

What to do? In view of the fact that President Chavez controls the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and every other center of power, if he decides to change the Constitution it is hard to see how civil society and other political forces can prevent it. The only hope is that democratic leaders throughout the world will raise their voices in protest, demanding that Chávez renounce his dynastic pretensions and allow his successor to be elected by the people, rather than personally appointing him. It will be an opportunity for, say, Dilma Rousseff or Lula da Silva to break the deafening silence that they have maintained concerning Hugo Chavez's penchant for undemocratic practices. It is more than high time to stop congratulating him, and to start demanding that he respects the basic principles of democracy that these two leaders claim to cherish.

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