The election which took place yesterday in Venezuela was of a certain significance. It was a poll among legislators to elect the chairman of the National Assembly and pitted Diosdado Cabello, who already held the post, against challenger Blanca Eekhout, who belongs to the Chávista faction led by Vice President Nicolás Maduro. It masked the jostling for power which is going on behind the scenes in the wake of President Chávez’s latest bout of illness, and the cloud hanging over his swearing in for his fourth term on January 10. In any situation where Mr Chávez cannot be sworn in, or his health does not allow him to serve as president again, then transitional arrangements kick in, whereby the chairman of the National Assembly becomes interim president before the holding of another election within 30 days. It would place that person in a situation of some influence.
Venezuela is a deeply divided society, not just between the opposition and those who support Chávez, but as suggested above, at a different level between the Chávistas themselves. Various news sources have reported analysts as commenting that the Vice President is an ideologue who is close to the Cubans, while Mr Cabello is associated with nationalistic factions and the so-called bolíbourgeoisie, who have become wealthy during the fourteen years of Chávez rule. Most important, as a former army officer he has ties to the military, a silent, but critical player in the current game. El Nuevo Herald on Thursday saw Ms Eekhout’s candidacy to become Chairman of the National Assembly as a move on Mr Maduro’s part to wrest control of the legislature from Mr Cabello.
On Friday, with what appeared to be the intimations of a deterioration in President Chávez’s condition, El Nuevo Herald reported sources as saying that a plan had now been finalized for a transition if the President could not be sworn in on January 10 this week. There has been a great deal of discussion in the Venezuelan media about how to interpret the constitution, more particularly on whether there could be a postponement of the date and possibly even a change of venue, and yesterday Mr Maduro indicated that the inauguration could be postponed. This might reflect a hope on the part of the government for some level of recovery by President Chávez – at least from his present critical state – and/or, as Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank cited by the Miami Herald said, a move by Mr Maduro to buy time and consolidate his position.
Even if the inauguration is postponed – and if the government goes the postponement route it will be a source of great dissension – there is a definite possibility that at some point in the next two years there could be another election, which would be preceded by the inevitable transition. El Nuevo Herald said that the outlines of the transition plan had been drawn up under the direction of Mr Chávez himself some months ago, but that the details were only finalized last week in Cuba. Certainly, El Universal columnist Nelson Bocaranda had claimed last year that there had been discussions in Cuba under the supervision of Mr Chávez about future plans should he be unable to continue for health reasons, while all the main players in the ruling party were in Cuba last week, including both Cabello and Maduro.
If El Nuevo Herald‘s second report is correct, the plan intended that Cabello should retain the chairmanship of the legislature – in fact he has – and that he then would become the interim president on January 10 (or presumably at some later point if need be), announcing an election date shortly thereafter. Maduro would become the presidential candidate in accordance with what Mr Chávez had told the nation before leaving for Cuba in early December. The Cubans, it was reported, are not happy with Cabello because as mentioned above they have no control over him and he is widely reported as being ambitious, but it was thought that he was important to the continuation of the Chávez project because of his influence with the armed forces.
One source to whom El Nuevo Herald spoke said the Cubans had considerable influence on the decisions being made currently. Of course, Cuban concern about the future political direction of Venezuela requires no elaboration; economically the island is so dependent on Caracas, that it would produce a crisis if the concessionary oil and other aid were to cease or be dramatically reduced. The Cubans will obviously see their best chance as having people in power in Venezuela who share the same, or a similar, ideological perspective to themselves, which is why they support Vice President Maduro.
El Nuevo Herald quoted a source with access to information on the talks in Cuba as saying, “The Cuban sponsors are working behind the scenes to try to create a sort of Politburo, a council that operates in consensus and guarantees the stability of Chavism in Venezuela by bringing together potential heirs and rivals.” The source was reported as continuing: “The Cubans want Nicolás Maduro to [eventually] assume the presidency, to be the head of the council and serve as a mediator between the various factions and personalities.” It was also said that the Cubans wanted strong links with certain governors in the Venezuelan regions who could build up Chávez’s party there along with their own power base. Among those identified, said the Herald, was the President’s brother Adán Chávez, and the former Minister of Defence, Henry Rangel Silva.
Whether this account is accurate in every detail is impossible to judge, although on Friday El Universal reported the opposition Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas Antonio Ledezma as accusing Maduro and Cabello of receiving their instructions from Cuba, and demanding to know who was issuing them. In a general sense, however, it can be reasonably assumed that the competing forces of Chavism will try to hold together for at least a transitional period and since the President is receiving treatment in Cuba – a closed society – inevitably the discussions on the future would have to be held there, if only because they need Mr Chávez’s final imprimatur. The President’s concerns have always been primarily ideological, which is why he anointed Mr Maduro as his successor; and he would no doubt expect, if not request, that the Cubans help him ensure that structures are in place which would guarantee the survival of his socialist ideals.
While the plan is to give Mr Cabello more powers, no doubt to keep him on board following an election which Chávez supporters (not to mention the Cubans) hope Maduro will win, nevertheless, as head of the legislature with links to the military it sets him up as a force in his own right beyond the control of the presidency. The possibility always exists, of course, that he could bypass the plan and stand as a presidential candidate himself.
Whatever the case there is a potential, therefore, for a split in the movement, in the first instance between the ideologues and those of a more nationalistic and/or materialistic persuasion who may be resentful of the Cubans and have less enthusiasm for the Bolivarian socialist project. Exactly how it will all develop cannot be predicted from here, other than to observe that factions will most likely appear, and the army at some point could conceivably play a role.
In an election, of course, the possibility exists that the opposition could win, and if that happened it is difficult to say at this stage whether the result would be accepted by the chavistas. Whatever scenario plays out, there will be uncertainty if not instability, and Venezuelan concerns will be focused inwards, not outwards. Alba will probably fizzle out, and economic programmes such as PetroCaribe may not endure for any extended period in their current form.
If Mr Chávez cannot serve another term, it would not just leave Venezuela in a state of uncertainty, but most of Caricom as well, not excluding Guyana. A few weeks ago David Jessop wrote a column in this newspaper which said that much of the Caribbean owed an enormous debt to the President of Venezuela, who had saved it from economic crisis. He was not overstating the situation. He was referring mainly to the PetroCaribe facility, on which several of the small islands are totally dependent. In our case, we get 50% of our oil from Venezuela, but we are also reliant on it as a market for our rice.
In addition to the economic concerns, instability at any level in Venezuela is not good news for this country, although a stable Venezuela with the opposition in office may not be good news either. One can only hope that the government here is monitoring the situation very carefully, is receiving insightful data from our mission in Caracas, and that it had embarked long before this on some contingency planning both in relation to the economic issues as well as potential border ramifications.