Six Points to Watch amid Chávez Health Mystery

By Christopher Sabatini

President Hugo Chávez named a potential successor, raising questions about a Venezuelan leadership transition. AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini outlines six issues to watch in Venezuela in the months ahead.

Amid questions surrounding his health, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez named Vice President Nicolás Maduro as his successor. The December 8 announcement came a week before gubernatorial elections and a month ahead of Chávez’s next presidential inauguration, raising questions about what a leadership transition could mean for Venezuela. AS/COA Senior Director of Policy Christopher Sabatini outlines six major things to watch in the next few months.  

Leadership Transition within Chavismo: Through his charisma and the patronage provided by Venezuela’s oil, President Hugo Chávez has assembled a broad, heterogeneous movement, nominally under the PSUV party. Whatever may happen in the next months, Chávez’s announcement has set in motion the internal discussion and positioning to lead the movement. The question now is how Chávez and his newly tapped potential successor will hold together the fractious, inchoate coalition that includes the military, business, and unions, as well as fringe, splinter parties of the left as these groups look to jockey and position themselves for the future.

The effect on foreign relations: Since coming to power, Chávez’s vision and oil-fueled largesse has given him a profile as an alternative leader in the hemisphere, building an alliance of like-minded populist leaders in ALBA; propping up Cuba’s decrepit Castro regime with oil shipments; buying the political support of Caribbean and Central American nations through donated oil; and openly courting Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and Syrian governments. Without Chávez at full force, this alternative vision in the Americas—openly opposed to U.S. interests—may begin to sputter, even with the ongoing shipment of oil.

Chávez’s legacy: There’s no doubt that Chávez will leave an indelible mark on Venezuelan history. But unlike leaders such as Argentina’s Juan Perón, Chávez’s legacy will not be an institutional one. What the Bolivarian leader has excelled at is tearing down and debasing institutions, not building them up, including his own 2000 Bolivarian Constitution.

January 10 Inauguration: Will Chávez even be able to stand to take the oath of office on January 10? If he cannot, it will raise the question of whether he is legitimately sworn in as president.

New Elections: If for reasons of illness or death, Chávez is forced to step down in the next four years, the Constitution requires the government to call a new presidential election in 30 days. The question is how quickly would those elections be convened since the Constitution only stipulates within 30 days. Convening them earlier would leave the opposition at a disadvantage, but still comply with the letter of the law.

Currency Devaluation: There is a potential collision point that could coincide with a leadership transition. Venezuela could soon need to devalue its national currency, the bolivar, to clamp down on the raging inflation rate (at more than 20 percent annually, it's one of the highest in the world) and its whopping 15 percent fiscal deficit. This would lead to an economic slowdown at the same time as the very delicate potential succession that the government may need to orchestrate should Maduro have to slide into the driver’s seat and call for elections.

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