A disquieting new chapter in Hugo Chavez’s ongoing battle with cancer emerged today, as the Venezuelan leader announced that he would be forced to return to Cuba for further treatment. There’s little surprise that Chavez remains sick, but his health situation must be very grim: Chavez has actually named a successor to carry out the remainder of his revolution, the widely liked Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Both his supporters and the opposition have quickly lashed onto El Comandante’s deteriorating condition as a political tool. The stakes are high, as Chavez has done little to groom either Maduro or the national party bosses for independently managed rule. Any coalition that survives Chavez’s potential death or retirement will be under intense pressure to prove that they can maintain the pace of reforms while avoiding a backslide into oligarchy and economic stagnation.
Chavez remains one of the most domestically popular leaders in the world; after 14 years in office, the hardy socialist was able to handily beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski earlier this year by a comfortable 54-44% margin. Despite a lot of rancor from mostly non-Venezuelan critics, there’s little question the elections were fair and represent the will of the country: turnout stood at an astonishing 80.4% of the electorate. Mandates like that are hard to come by.
His reforms have been marked by stunning drops in Venezuelan poverty levels as much as its record inflation. Under Chavez, Venezuela reduced the portion of its population living in extreme poverty from a horrific 29.8% in 2003 to 6.8% in 2011. The overall poverty index has more than halved, falling from 49% to 24.2% from the start of Chavez’s rule to 2009.
It is impossible to analyze Chavez’s presidency without considering that upon his assumption of leadership in 1998, Venezuela was one of the poorest countries in the world. As the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research noted, the fall in the Gini coefficient from 2002 to 2008 “gave Venezuela the least unequal distribution of income in Latin America.” He’s managed to do this all without really challenging the nation’s singular dependence on oil revenues, a testament to how disastrous and extractive foreign control of Venezuelan oil was for the country.
The government’s popularity depends in large part on Chavez, who styles himself a bluff, nationalistic economic everyman under whose rule Venezuela has “snapped the tradition of subservience that characterized the nation for decades.” His followers, the Chavistas, are among the most intensely devoted in the world.
It has also allowed his regime to use a heavy hand in suppressing the opposition — some truly awful things have happened to Venezuelans who disagree with Chavez. A former judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni, claims to have been unlawfully detained then raped in prison after ordering the release of a businessman under the guidance of the United Nations. Even Noam Chomsky, normally an inveterate champion of the Venezuelan regime, issued a petition calling for her release.
The opposition, primarily backed by the country’s centrist elites, has not been able to capitalize on the government’s excesses and abuses because of their self-imposed isolation and inability to articulate a viable alternative for Venezuela. With reforms so popular among the nation’s underclass, they have little to offer to voters. Venezuelan academic Javier Biardeau says, “the opposition has failed to make a counterproposal to be discussed with the nation, a fact that signals their total lack of interest in holding a true debate ... the terrible habit within opposition circles of characterizing the government as an ‘authoritarian democracy’ creates a grey area that cancels out the possibility of creating a constructive opposition that contributes to society.”
Maduro has been a forceful advocate for Chavez’s policies, but it remains to be seen whether anyone can maintain and manage a movement built with so much passion for one man. Chavez’s announcement raises a specter of doubt as to whether he will even survive until his scheduled inauguration on January 10. The biggest obstacle to Venezuela’s future may Chavez’s consolidation of his own power — with potentially scant time to prepare a new generation of leadership, much will depend on whether voters will continue to ignore the failings of Chavez’s administration in the absence of what Reuters calls the “intense emotional connection” to its leader.
Maduro seems poised to succeed Chavez in any case; in a televised address on Saturday, the presidente said that “it is my firm opinion, my complete and irrevocable opinion, that under this scenario, you should all vote for Nicolas.”