Venezuela: Is there Chavism after Chávez?

Chávez’s absence left a political vacuum and made people aware of the lack of a successor.

What to make of the news that Hugo Chávez has cancer? asked the Guyana Stabroek News in an editorial. The health of the Venezuelan president has been the subject of rumor for weeks. In June, while on a trip to Cuba, the leftist firebrand had what was billed as emergency surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. After the “normally voluble” Chávez wasn’t heard from for nearly two weeks, Venezuelans began murmuring that their president must have cancer, a rumor that was repeatedly denied by regime officials only to be confirmed by Chávez himself last week. But the president still refused to say where the tumor was—his prostate? Or worse, his pancreas?—or whether he was receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Withholding information has not only fueled more speculation but also “created the impression that no one knows what is going on and, by extension, no one is in charge.”

For a while there, nobody was, said Eugenio G. Martínez in the Venezuelan El Universal. Chávez’s absence left a leadership vacuum while the country was in the middle of “a major energy crisis and a bloody prison riot.” Now, for the first time, “the regime is confronting the major weakness of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution: The leader has no heir.” This is partly by design, of course. Chávez has put loyalty to himself before loyalty to the state. He has been quick to squelch any rival to his power, so even his top lieutenants keep low profiles. Approval ratings of the leading members of his party, including cabinet secretaries, languish in the low 30s. While Chávez has done the country a great service in connecting with the poor and improving their lot, Chavism as a political movement has a limited future.

It’s a shame that “our comrade president” had to come rushing back, said Pedro Méndez in the Venezuelan El Norte. His doctors told him to spend several more weeks in Cuba recovering. But because of a clamor by opportunistic political opponents, Chávez returned home this week, “20 pounds lighter but still full of energy.” How ironic that those opponents who used to shout “Chávez, go!” were now demanding “Chávez, come home!” Those who once called him illegitimate were now insisting that the rightful place for the president is in Caracas. We can only hope he will be able to recuperate properly. After 12 years in office with scarcely a vacation, he has earned a bit of rest.

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It’s possible that Chávez can recover in time to campaign for the December 2012 elections, said Andrés Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald. And he would probably win with “a sympathy vote.” If so, the economy, which he has been strangling for over a decade, will continue to ail. Yet sadly, this is the best scenario for the beleaguered country. If he’s too weak to run, Chávez will probably borrow a chapter from the Cuban playbook and select as his successor his brother Adán, a provincial governor who is “seen as the leader of the radical leftist, pro-Cuban wing” of the Chavistas. Adán would pull the country even further toward totalitarian socialism. Whether Chávez recovers or not, Venezuela is in for a period of “political turmoil.”

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