What could halt the tornado that is Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez? Since he came to office in 1999 his domestic opponents have tried all things constitutional and unconstitutional to remove him and derail his Bolivarian revolution - all to no avail. The United States too, whose entire political class finds Chávez’s quest to build “21st-century socialism” noxious, has employed various tactics (isolation, embargos and granting financial support to the opposition) in order to unseat him - without success. The Venezuelan president has remained sovereign, and the powerful connection he maintains with his supporters is unbroken.
But now, for the first time in his twelve-year presidency, Hugo Chávez looks fragile. A cancer diagnosis has made vulnerable the once all-powerful leader. The news has forced once unthinkable questions:
* Will Chávez complete the remaining eighteen months of his term until the presidential election of December 2012?
* Is it possible for him to re-contest the presidency; if not, who will be the candidate of the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV)?
* The most fundamental: can a revolution moulded by Chávez’s character and charisma be led by anyone but him?
Chávez’s exact condition is opaque. He returned to Venezuela on 23 July 2011 after visits to Cuba for surgery and then chemotherapy. Whatever the prognosis - and details are scarce - Chávez is physically weakened, and this poses serious short- and long-term problems for the government and its socialist ambitions.
The president’s condition
Hugo Chávez has been the vital energy of the Bolivarian revolution. He has driven the ideological and organisational evolution of the Chavistas, his charisma and authority has taken Bolivarianism from fringe idea to mass movement. He legitimises and defines the direction of the PSUV, the priorities of the government and the pace of the revolution.
This heavy centralisation around the figure of one man has made the complexity of leftist factions behind the revolution and the multiple popular expectations it has created manageable. Without the unifying figure of Chávez, the Bolivarian revolution is rudderless, and susceptible to drift and sectarianism.
Even before the medical diagnosis there were signs that the revolution was facing challenges that were having an impact on Chávez’s popularity and eroding support for the PSUV. These included energy and housing shortages, crime, inflation, and serious bottlenecks in policy delivery. After the opposition coalition the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Movement / MUD) made gains in the 2008 (state) and 2010 (national-assembly) elections, Chávez’s re-election in 2012 was not a foregone conclusion.
Yet despite a trend of fatigue and disillusion among traditional pro-Chávez voters there was no serious candidature debate within the PSUV, ensuring that the incumbent would automatically be nominated.
Indeed, there are few other options. No senior figure in the party or government commands the popularity of Chávez and no individual has been groomed to replace him. Those around the president - including two tipped as possible successors, his brother Adan and old military colleague Diosdado Cabello - are politically weak. This means that Chávez can neither hand over the reins of power while he continues his treatment nor withdraw from the election contest.
Before departing for Cuba, Chávez stressed the need to “pulverise sectarianism” and warned that “whoever disagrees can go”. But if his medical condition fails significantly to improve, his capacity to keep a lid on internal power-struggles will wane. An ailing president at the helm would offer slim prospects of the government addressing its policy dilemmas and getting the 2012 campaign back on track.
What comes next
The PSUV is fortunate in that the parlous state of the opposition MUD provides it with political breathing-space. The MUD’s decision to defer until February 2012 primaries to select its presidential candidate means that it is in no position to offer a meaningful alternative leadership during the current crisis for the Chavistas. Even as Venezuelan voters consider the once unimaginable possibility of a post-Chávez political landscape, the opposition is (as usual) focused on its own internal struggles. At a time when the MUD needs to present itself as a viable channel for floating voters and the disaffected, its constituent elements are engaged in a fight for preferment.
The two most prominent opposition candidates are Henrique Capriles Radonski (the governor of Miranda and leader of Primera Justicia [Justice First]) and Leopoldo López (of the Voluntad Popular [Popular Will]) party. Both are young, neo-liberal and technocratic; and both have faced criminal proceedings in relation to corruption and political violence. López is currently barred from holding public office, a ruling he has appealed at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. The recent opinion-poll surveys put Capriles in front - including of Chávez, which heightens concerns that he will be subject to arbitrary legal ruses in order to prevent him from running. But Capriles arguably faces a very different threat to his ambitions.
Capriles, like his party rival López, promotes himself as a defender of economic and political freedoms against an “arbitrary” and “authoritarian” regime. But other opposition politicians, sniffing Chávez’s weakness, are entering the ring and occupying the same rhetorical ground. The former Christian Democrat leader Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, newly sentenced to two years in prison (commuted) for spreading false information in his TV broadcasts, intends to run in the MUD primaries.
María Corina Machado, former head of the NGO Súmate which led the "recall" campaign against Chávez in 2004, also seeks the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática candidature. Machado, now a member of the national assembly, was charged with treason after signing a decree dissolving Chávez’s government in the ill-fated coup attempt of 2002 and after receiving funds for Súmate from the US-based National Endowment for Democracy.
Machado is further reviled among the Chavistas for her closeness to George W Bush. An incident on 5 July 2011 where she claims to have been attacked by an angry mob underscores the deep antipathy many voters feel toward more ideological sections of the opposition, and portends ill for the campaign ahead. This sentiment may be further fanned by the parole of Alejando Pena Esclusa, president of UnoAmerica, a regional organisation committed to fighting the threat of a “Marxist-Islamic alliance” in Latin America. The government may be fortunate that in the vacuum left by Chávez, rancour and radicalism within the MUD will remind voters of all that they have to lose by not backing the PSUV candidate in 2012 - be it Chávez or his successor.
But in the event Chávez decides not to seek re-election or to step down from power, such rancour and radicalism will be as much a problem for the Chavistas as their opponents. The meaning of “21st-century socialism” is contested from within. Some want the revolution to accelerate, others want consolidation; there are factions favouring top-down control and groups pressing for enhanced internal democracy; pro-government unions pushing for worker self-management and others that accept state management of the nationalised sector.
Any extended absence of Chávez thus opens up the possibility not of the great “re-democratisation" internal and external critics hoped for, but of political fragmentation, chaos and a deepening of voter alienation - conditions that always generate a yearning for commanding and authoritative leadership.