Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks during Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguilar Patriota’s official visit at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, on November 1, 2012. (Leo Ramirez /AFP/Getty Images)

Analysis: Chavez remains secretive about his health and his successor

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s trip to Cuba last week for a new round of medical treatment, and the statement by the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly suggesting that the newly-reelected president may not return until inauguration day on January 10, have once again put the issue of Chavez’s health and possible successor into the public discussion.

Since Chavez revealed he had cancer 15 months ago, there has been no official report about the state of his health. All we know is what one of his close associates, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, said a few days ago: that Chavez is following “in a disciplined way” the treatment that doctors have recommended in Cuba. And days earlier, Chavez himself issued a brief written statement that he would travel to Havana to undergo a medical treatment know as “Hyperbaric oxygenation therapy” (HBOT), which is used in cases of bone damage or infections in soft tissue caused by radiation therapy.

Chavez’s departure shocked many Venezuelans and those who follow events in the country, as the 58-year old leader seemed to have recovered in time for the election last October 7. While it is true that Chavez had not been seen on television for several weeks, given his energy during the campaign and on election night, many thought that the worst was over and that the controversial leader would take office in January. Today, no one is quite sure that Chavez will attend his own inauguration, let alone complete his term.

As in the former Soviet Union — where little or nothing was known officially about the health of the Kremlin leaders — or as in communist Cuba, the health of political leaders is treated as a state secret. The same is true in Venezuela. In Chavez’s case, secrecy is all the easier to maintain because he has received all medical treatment in Cuba.

Although the Venezuelan press, as well as websites and blogs, write daily about Chavez and his health, the truth is that much or all of this talk is more speculation than sound information. Cuban state security has kept a lid on the information. Chavez has been presumed dead many times, or given a short time to live, and in the end the president of the Bolivarian Republic always reappears.

This secrecy and lack of official information upsets many Venezuelans. In these times of free elections, a free press (in varying degrees) and democratic governments throughout Latin America, citizens expect the social contract with their government to include information on the health of their political leaders. Venezuelans have the “right to know” about the health of Chavez, said Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles. “Just as one sees in other countries, such as in Argentina, in Brazil, where the presidents, when they have some difficulty with their health, are the first to report it,” Capriles said.

The Chavez government’s response to such voices is to accuse them of being disrespectful of Chavez and of trying to “demoralize” the Venezuelan people. “When we have the human misery of this right-wing (leader) messing with the life of another human being, one feels indignation,” said Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro to a group of Chavez supporters during a rally for the elections of governors to be held December 16.

Even as Maduro insists that Chavez will see a “full recovery of his health,” and return to govern for the next six years “with more strength, maturity and wisdom,” every day there is more talk about what might happen if the Venezuelan president has to leave office. If Chavez cannot begin his next term in January, or cannot continue in office any time during the first four years, the Venezuelan Constitution states that elections must be called within thirty days.

If Chavez leaves power before January 10, Vice President Maduro would assume the presidency. If he were to leave after the inauguration, the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would take the place of Chavez. In either case, elections must be held within a month. And if this were to happen, the crucial question is who Chavistas would nominate as their presidential candidate.

The obvious answer, of course, would be the designated successor to Chavez. The problem is that, to date, it is not known if Chavez has named a successor. If he does so publicly, this person would have a great advantage over rivals, and we would have to assume that he or she would be accepted by the other Chavista leaders, the popular bases, and the military. The men in uniform, although not directly linked to the political fight, have a voice in the fate of Chavismo, and for some, even Cuba has a say in the selection of Chavez’s successor.

Two of the names most often mentioned, and perhaps those most likely to succeed Chavez, are Vice President Maduro and Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello. Neither has anywhere near the charisma of Chavez, which is no small matter considering that much of Chavez’s appeal — the ardent enthusiasm he generates to get people to vote for him — is precisely because of his skills as a caudillo or populist leader, and the ease he has in dealing with people.

Chavistas cannot affort to sit on their hands. Besides the political and electoral platforms, personal appeal will also play a role in the eventual Venezuelan election. The opposition has a readymade candidate in the same young and energetic politician,  Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez the fight of his life last October, winning more than 44 percent of the vote. The Chavistas will have a short time to choose and prepare a candidate for the presidential contest.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan leader is absent from the important gubernatorial campaigns. In some states, like Miranda, Chavez’s prestige and legacy will be in play. Capriles is running for reelection as governor against a Chavez crony, former Vice President Elias Jaua. A Capriles victory in Miranda would be a serious blow to Chavez himself.

It has been more than a week since Chavez traveled to Cuba, and he has not been seen in public. Speculation and rumors about his health increase every day. In the absence of official information, the only  way to talk about the Venezuelan’s president condition  is to make educated guesses. The last thing known about Chavez in Cuba was that he named 15 ambassadors from Havana. How did Venezuelans know that?  They found out from a Twitter message sent by the Minister of Information. But never mind, Chavez “is in Cuba fulfilling the mandate that people gave him on October 7,” Vice President Maduro said.

President Hugo Chavez is back in Venezuela. He arrived early Friday at Caracas Airport and was seen walking down the steps from his plane accompanied by Vice President Nicolas Maduro. He didn’t give any details about his health. “I am very happy, as you all can see, to be arriving here again,” Chavez said. “Very happy”.


Carlos Rajo is Telemundo’s Political Analyst. To read the piece in Spanish or for more visit Telemundo.

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