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World leaders descend upon Chávez funeral: one photo, but mil palabras


What’s always been so interesting about chavismo is the way that the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez managed to build alliances both with just about every leader in Latin America, no matter how radical or moderate, while also building close alliances with a ‘who’s who’ of world rogue leaders on poor terms with the United States of America.Venezuela Flag Icon

It makes for an interesting set of photos from Chávez’s funeral — the photo above comes from the Facebook feed of Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of México, a country that’s had relatively little use for Venezuela over the past 14 years — former president Felipe Calderón used Chávez as a boogeyman in the 2006 Mexican presidential election to warn voters against the one-time leftist frontrunner, former Mexican City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and that may have made the difference in that election.

Chávez died Tuesday in Caracas after a long fight with cancer, suddenly bringing to life Venezuelan politics that had largely been frozen in waiting on Chávez’s health since his 11-point reelection in October 2012.

Peña Nieto was expected to move Mexican relations closer to Venezuela than under the more right-wing Calderón, but Peña Nieto and Chávez were hardly best friends.  That relationship was part and parcel of the diverse set of relationships that Chávez had with the rest of Latin America — sometimes ally, sometimes foil, sometimes donor and often, all three simultaneously.  Those relationships, all of which are on display this week in Caracas, give us a rough sense of whether chavismo — and the broader form of the populist, socialist left that has been on the rise in Latin America (though not necessarily in its largest, most economically successful, countries like México and Brazil) — will live beyond Chávez.

Peña Nieto is in the fourth row, standing between businessman Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s conservative president to his left and Peruvian president Ollanta Humala to his right.  Humala, who won a very close election in 2011 in Perú, was feared as a potential chavista radical leftist, anathema to Peru’s business elite, despite renouncing a chavista-style government in Perú.  In fact, Humala has turned out to govern as a business-friendly moderate, garnering relatively more criticism from environmentalists and social activists on the left since his election.

There in the front row, you can see Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Cuba’s president Raúl Castro (who has the distinction of belonging to both the ‘rogue state’ and ‘Latin American’ groups), the new ‘acting’ first lady of Venezuela Cilia Flores, and her husband, acting president Nicolás Maduro. Continue reading World leaders descend upon Chávez funeral: one photo, but mil palabras

Should Capriles automatically get a second shot at Venezuela’s presidency?


Venezuela’s now-acting president Nicolás Maduro is tending to affairs of state today, including a funeral for the late president Hugo Chávez on Friday, and making sure that his longtime Venezuelan predecessor’s death doesn’t result in any turbulence.Venezuela Flag Icon

But as Francisco Toro, of the always-insightful Caracas Chronicles writes today in The New York Times, politics has not stopped simply because the 14-year leader has died:

And now, Chávez’s hand-picked successor is telling the man’s grieving followers that we — those who disagree with him — are responsible for the illness that took his life.

Within hours of the president’s death being announced, gangs of motorcycle-riding Chávez supporters burned down an encampment where opposition-minded students had been demanding that the government tell the truth about his condition. Rumors of riots circulated feverishly on Twitter throughout Tuesday evening, still unverified.

Maduro, for now at least, seems to have firmly grasped control of the government, including the immediate support of the Venezuelan military, and the parallel power structures of Chávez’s governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

Foreign minister Elías Jaua (former vice president), who announced that Maduro was taking over as acting president, seems to be on board the Maduro bandwagon, and Cuba has long thought to have favored Maduro as Chávez’s successor (incidentally, one of the most fascinating aspects of the past three months and the months ahead is the role that Cuba plays in Venezuelan governance).

There’s a chance that Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, could attempt to win the presidential nomination, but that seems unlikely, at least today. Time will tell.

Under the Venezuelan constitution, Maduro must call an election within 30 days of Chávez’s death but, as Diego Moya-Ocampos noted last month in Americas Quarterly, it’s not clear whether Maduro must call the election to be held within 30 days or whether Maduro must make the announcement within 30 days.

In one instance, Venezuela faces a presidential election on or before April 5.  In another instance, Venezuela faces an election anytime over the course of 2013, conceivably, so long as it is announced before April 5.  My first instinct is that Maduro will want to schedule the election as quickly as possible — to take advantage of lingering sympathy for Chávez and the legacy of his ‘Bolivarian’ project, to subdue intraparty rivals such as Cabello and to avoid giving the opposition a chance to develop support over a long campaign, especially at a time when so many problems are so visible: Venezuela’s economy remains in shaky condition, shortages and outages are commonplace and the country’s violent crime remains, as ever, some of the worst in the Western hemisphere.

Chávez’s former opponent, Henrique Capriles (pictured above), is assumed to become the candidate who will challenge Maduro in the upcoming presidential election to determine Chávez’s successor — he was the candidate of the unified opposition umbrella group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), in the October 2012 presidential election.

There are a lot of strong reasons to make that assumption: Continue reading Should Capriles automatically get a second shot at Venezuela’s presidency?

With Chávez’s health in doubt, regional Venezuelan elections assume greater importance



With Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez recovering from surgery, due to what may be terminal cancer, it’s easy to forget that this weekend will mark a handful of key regional races throughout Venezuela, including a gubernatorial race in Miranda state that pits Chávez’s former presidential rival against Chávez’s former vice president.zuliamiranda flagVenezuela Flag Icon

Although the attention this week has been mostly on Chávez’s health, his departure to Cuba for surgery and, perhaps above all, his speech last Saturday night indicating that his preferred successor is former foreign minister and vice president Nicolás Maduro, the results of Sunday’s races will establish the backdrop for the leading figures of both Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the broad opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD).

Indeed, with rumors flying of complications after his surgery, the weekend’s races have counterintuitively become more important as Venezuela prepares for the possibility, at least, of a new early presidential election if Chávez resigns or dies in office.

In their own right, however, because 20% of the federal budget is (theoretically) allotted to state governments, governorships provide the MUD and other opposition candidates a platform for government, notwithstanding the centralization of Venezuela’s federal system under PSUV rule.

venezuela states

The key race that everyone will be watching is the governor’s race in Miranda, where the incumbent, Henrique Capriles, recently finished his unsuccessful presidential campaign against Chávez as the MUD’s standard-bearer — although he lost by 9 points, Capriles won 45% of the vote, making him Chávez’s most successful political opponent in his 13-year reign.  Miranda state is likely Venezuela’s most developed state and its second most populous, bordering (and in some cases including) the broad Caracas metropolitan area.  Chávez actually won this state in the October presidential race by a squeaker — with 49.96% to Capriles’s 49.52%, and Capriles won the 2008 election with just over 52% of the vote.

His opponent is the somewhat humorless former vice president, Elias Jaua, and although one poll has shown Jaua with a five-point lead against Capriles, other polls have shown varying Capriles leads and it’s certainly difficult to believe Capriles is an underdog.  By all accounts, the fresh-faced Miranda governor has been a more-than-capable administrator in the past four years, bringing a dose of good government to Miranda after the corruption of his predecessor, Diosdado Cabello.  Furthemore, Jaua’s record as a colorless Chávez yes-man makes it seem like he’s less than likely to sweep to victory, although if Chávez’s health takes a serious turn for the worst between now and Sunday, Jaua may yet benefit from a vote of sympathy.

Capriles defeated Cabello, the governor from 2004 to 2008, in the prior election, and Cabello, who’s since become the leader of Venezuela’s PSUV-dominated National Assembly, would temporarily take over as president in the event that Chávez resigns or dies after he is sworn in for his next term (set to begin January 10), with a snap presidential election to follow within 30 days.  Despite Chávez’s speech anointing Maduro as his preferred successor, Cabello has long harbored presidential ambitions, he, along with Jaua (especially if Jaua wins) may try to become the PSUV’s presidential candidate in any such election instead.

Of course, in the event of such a rapid election, Capriles is very likely to lead the opposition against Maduro, Cabello or whomever the PSUV runs.  But that  could change if Capriles doesn’t win Sunday’s vote in Miranda handily — given his narrow loss to Chávez and the very short 30-day window for a new presidential election, Capriles may nonetheless still be the main opposition candidate.  But it would open the door for another candidate to emerge, likely from among the other six states where opposition governors are currently in power.

That brings us to Zulia state and with 3.8 million people, it’s Venezuela’s most populous.  Nestled in Venezuela’s far northwest bordering Colombia along the Caribbean coast, Zulia’s oil and agricultural wealth makes it, like Miranda, one of the country’s wealthiest states.  Pablo Pérez (pictured above, top), who widely lost the MUD’s presidential nomination to Capriles by a 2-to-1 margin way back in February 2012, is running for reelection in what should be an even more solid opposition win for Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, a New Era), the centrist party that was founded in Zulia in the late 1990s and which has controlled the governor’s office since 2000 (until 2008, under Manuel Rosales, who lost the 2006 presidential election against Chávez by a 25-point margin).  Pérez is running against the PSUV’s Francisco Arias Cárdenas, governor of Zulia from 1995 to 2000, though Pérez is heavily favored.  Capriles did better in Zulia than he did nationwide in October, winning 46.27% to just 53.34% for Chávez.  Both Chávez’s national government and Pérez’s UNT regional government have spent large sums on social programs in the state, and a win for the PSUV would be quite a staggering victory for chavismo.

If Capriles falters in Miranda, Pérez, who lies politically to the left of Capriles, could well become the next consensus opposition presidential candidate.

Continue reading With Chávez’s health in doubt, regional Venezuelan elections assume greater importance

Chávez officially names Maduro as anointed successor

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, only two months after winning reelection against his strongest opponent in 13 years in office, appears to have taken a turn for the worse in his ongoing struggle with cancer, has returned to Cuba for surgery. 

Before leaving, however, he indicated his express preference for his successor — for the first time — in the event that his health declines terminally.  That’s as close as any indication that Venezuelans have received from Chávez that he is battling terminal cancer, in a hasty address to the nation late Saturday night:

Unfortunately, comprehensive tests (performed in Cuba) found the presence, in the same area (previously) affected, of malignant (cancerous) cells. It has been decided that it is absolutely necessary and essential to undergo further surgery. This should happen in the coming days. Doctors even recommended performing the surgery yesterday (Friday) or this weekend at the latest.

Not surprisingly, Chávez anointed Nicolás Maduro (pictured above, left, with Chávez) as his favored successor, expressing openly what he had indicated implicitly in October when he elevated Maduro, formerly foreign minister, to become Venezuela’s new vice president.

Maduro, a former bus driver and trade unionist, has been part of Chávez’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) since its foundation, and he was by Chávez’s side in 1998 when the PSUV first won power.  He was a member of Venezuela’s parliament until 2006, serving as speaker from 2005 to 2006, when he was named as Chávez’s foreign minister.  As such, he’s a fairly well-known figure to Venezuela’s key allies and opponents alike, including China, the United States and Cuba, although observers are cautiously optimistic he would be a more moderate leader, more in the mould of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva than Chávez.

Chávez is set to be inaugurated for his fourth term on January 10 — if he were to die during his third term, Maduro would take over as president until January 10.  If Chávez dies after reelection, Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, would take over temporarily while new elections are organized.  Under Venezuelan law, a new presidential election would be required within 30 days of Chávez’s death or resignation during the first four years of his term (which is set to run for six years, through 2019).  Chávez’s announcement on Saturday makes it very likely that, despite Cabello’s presidential ambitions, Maduro would likely lead the PSUV in any such presidential election in the near future.

Venezuelans return to the polls on December 16 to vote for regional governments, including in Miranda state, where Chávez’s one-time challenger Henrique Capriles is facing a strong challenge from Maduro’s predecessor as vice president, Elías Jaua.

Capriles won 45% of the vote nationally against Chávez in October as the leader of the opposition coalition, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD).  If Capriles wins on Sunday in Miranda state, he will be well placed to compete in any future presidential election against Maduro.

Chávez headed for apparent narrow reelection in Venezuela

According to Venezuela’s election commission, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has won reelection with 54.42% of the vote in today’s election, apparently, with just 44.97% for Henrique Capriles, his most effective challenger since Chávez was elected as president for the first time in 1998.  Capriles has conceded victory to Chávez. 

The top-notch Caracas Chronicles blog is also reporting that Chávez has won, despite early exit polls that suggested Capriles may have pulled off an upset against Chávez — there’s been no indication as to whether there’s been fraud in the election results, but the election was conducted without international observers.

While the vote may turn out to have been free, it is more difficult to know whether the vote was fair, with many government employees allegedly scared to vote against Chávez, lest they lose their jobs in retribution.

After he is re-inaugurated in January, Chávez’s term will run until 2019.  In power for 14 years, he has brought a uniquely personal brand of ‘Bolivarian’ revolution to Venezuela, and he has now survived an incredibly effective and energetic challenge from the governor of Miranda state, who was supported by a highly unified opposition in the form of the umbrella group Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD).  Capriles, however, it could signal the resurgence of a true opposition and the emergence of a more normal politics in the South American country of nearly 30 million people after Chávez won reelection with 61% six years ago.

Serious questions remain about the future of chavismo, however, starting with the health of the president himself, who underwent treatment abroad earlier this year and last year for an unspecified form of cancer.  Beyond questions of Chávez’s health and issues of transition within his party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela), there remains the question of a stagnant economy propped up solely by Venezuelan oil, murder rates and violent crime that’s some of the worst in the world, and government institutions rife with corruption, abuse and waste and a lack of commitment to freedom of speech and expression in many regards.

Chávez’s support for communist regimes in Latin America, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, and pariah states throughout the world, such as Belarus and Iran, and his wider campaign to oppose and irritate the United States, has left the government isolated.

While Chávez has effected a massive redistribution of wealth to the poorest citizens of Venezuela, Capriles accused his government of squandering the country’s oil wealth both at home and abroad through subsidizes for other socialist regimes.  Capriles ran on a program of liberalizing an economy that Chávez has consolidated under state control.  With Chávez’s reelection, however, it seems likely that Chávez will want to consolidate the socialist nature of Venezuela’s government.