Doctors began operating on Chavez in Cuba, his government said, after his cancer reappeared despite a year and a half of surgeries and treatments. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

With Chavez’s recovery uncertain, Venezuela teeters towards a new president

For six hours, surgeons in Havana operated on ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,working to delicately remove the malignant cancer tissues that have sent him to the operating table three times since 2011.  The outlook for Chavez’s recovery is bleak, according to government officials, leading many to speculate about the man he has named his successor, the bus-driver-turned-politician Vice President Nicolás Maduro.

In the wake of Chavez’s announcement that his cancer has returned, Maduro has been increasingly thrust onto the global stage. Speaking on national television, he cautioned Venezuelans that they should expect to face “hard, complex and difficult days,” as the 58-year-old president recovers from his surgery.  Though Chavez won his third six-year term in national elections this October, his illness may prevent him from fulfilling the responsibilities of office. If that happens, Chavez has prepared his chavistas to fall lock-step behind Maduro, said Mary Murray, an NBC senior producer and Latin American specialist. “His supporters are closing ranks,” Murray said.  “They’ve said ‘we’re going to keep power no matter what.’”

Maduro would then stand to inherit the world’s largest oil reserves, but also the onerous task of steering a country plagued by high inflation, an 8.2% unemployment rate and rampant crime. Throughout his tenure, Chavez has been able to leverage his personality against the nation’s strife. He appears on his own television show, tweets out new policies and orders supporters to rally in the streets.

But Maduro may not be able to use the same tactics to pacify the people, said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  “There is the issue of whether he has the charisma to maintain following and keep public attention focused on himself as opposed to on Venezuela’s main problems,” he said.

Known as a party loyalist, Maduro started out as a bus driver for the Caracas Metro and rose slowly through the ranks. He went on to become a union organizer and then a member of the national assembly. He was eventually appointed foreign minister, a post that required him to tout Chavez’s agenda in diplomatic circles. Some members of the Venezuelan diaspora see that assignment as a natural stepping stone towards the presidency.

“I believe that his experience meeting other high-ranking politicians from all over the world has given him exposure on a global scale and has definitely given him some training if it comes to him taking over,” said mechanical engineer Emerson Gutiérrez, 36, a Minnesota resident who was born and raised in La Grita, Venezuela.

Maduro could, however, face challenges within his own party.  The vice president’s lack of connections with the country’s armed forces could put him at a political disadvantage to potential rivals in the long run, such as former lieutenant commander Diosdado Cabello, the head of the parliament.

“I envision a power struggle between these two individuals,” said Carlos Sardi, a bankruptcy attorney who immigrated to Miami when he was 15. “Venezuelan history has demonstrated that those who control the arms will go into power.”

After becoming president in 1998, Chavez used his rapport with the military to cement his power. “The reality is, Chavez is a dictator camouflaged as a democrat,” said Sardi. “When I hear Mr. Chavez talking, I feel ashamed of being a Venezuelan.”

Chavez may well recover from his surgery and return to office in good health, leaving Maduro with heightened public stature but no additional powers. This scenario leads some to think Maduro’s sudden prominence was merely a political maneuver designed to bolster support for Chavez’s party in the upcoming state governor elections.

“Chavez has a history of rotating loyalists around, and one reason, which is pure speculation on my part, is to keep them slightly off-balance so none of them would be able to amass too much influence or in any way approach equivalency with his influence,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Stephen Johnson.

International monitors were not allowed to observe Venezuela’s last election. The opposition, led by Henrique Capriles, came closer to victory than any previous opponent but in the end 54 percent of the electorate appear to have voted for Chavez. His popular support almost ensures that, were he to hand over power, many Venezuelans would continue to support his party. But no matter who takes over in 2013, said Carlos Sardi, they would have a negligible impact on the country’s most deep-rooted problems of poverty and corruption.

“Even if you speculate what might happen,” Sardi said, “I don’ t see any of them getting out of the dark tunnel that Venezuela is in.”

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