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With Chávez in Cuba, who will be Venezuela’s president next week?

People praying for the life of Hugo Chavez
AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
Hope and prayer in Caracas.
By Steve LeVine
CaracasPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hugo Chávez’s condition after his latest cancer surgery in Cuba is throwing political uncertainty into a nation that, under the charismatic and populist leader, has used oil reserves to punch above its geopolitical weight in big foreign policy issues. It is not even clear who will be president of Venezuela next week.

The 58-year-old Chávez, who won a decisive re-election in October, is scheduled to be sworn in to a third term on Jan. 10. But reports suggest that he may be in no condition to attend an inauguration in Caracas. There are reports that Chávez is in a coma, which have been denied by his chosen successor, vice president Nicolás Maduro. Maduro has said that instead Chávez is in a “delicate” state after suffering respiratory infection on the heels of Dec. 11 pelvic surgery, his fourth operation for cancer.

In successive tweets in Spanish today, Roger Noriega, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, said, “Sources inform me that Chávez is not dead or in a coma. Doctors doubt he can resume activities. Cubans in charge of succession” and subsequently “Chávez is conscious but in a terminal condition. Lack of treatment during the [presidential] campaign caused irreparable damage.” Noriega was unavailable this morning to elaborate on his sources, but he is seasoned in the region as a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and US ambassador to the Organization of American States.

In line with the Venezuelan constitution, Chávez transferred temporary power to Maduro while he is away in Cuba. But the law says that if Chávez cannot return to take the oath by Jan. 10, it must be determined whether his inability to do so is temporary or permanent. If it’s permanent, a new election must be held within 30 days. In other cases, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, can assume temporary power for up to 90 days.

But even that framework is in doubt. On Jan. 5, Cabello will run for re-election to head the National Assembly, but given the current political stakes he could face opposition. In addition, some local analysts are suggesting that the country’s Supreme Court justices might fly to Havana and administer the presidential oath of office to Chávez at his bedside.

Cabello is thought by many analysts to be a natural rival to Maduro, whose supporters may run their own candidate for the National Assembly post. The two men are backed by different strong political factions, according to Stephen Johnson, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Johnson told me that Cabello is backed by the Venezuelan military, while Maduro is close to Cuba, which enjoys vast influence in the country.

Both Maduro and Cabello are rivals of Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s main leader and governor of Miranda state. Capriles lost the presidential election to Chávez by 10 percentage points in October, but held his seat as governor against a chavista candidate two months later. If Maduro were to stand for the presidency against Capriles, some think he would win, but analysts are divided (paywall). It looks likely that the test will come soon.

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