Despite reassuring voters just two months ago that he was cancer-free, this week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had to undergo a fourth cancer-related operation in Cuba. His friend and leftist ally, Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, flew to Havana to be at his bedside, expressing the seriousness of the situation. Mr. Chavez, 58, delegated the country’s “high political command” to Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, in case he becomes too sick to lead the South American nation of 29 million.
The health crisis raises the prospect of divisive infighting within the Chavismo movement in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, as well as the faint hope that the opposition could finally win. Mr. Chavez, a fiery and charismatic orator and self-styled socialist who first took office 14 years ago, won another six-year term in the October election, but opposition leader Henrique Capriles narrowed the margin of victory. The new term begins on Jan. 10. Under the country’s constitution, elections must be held within 30 days, should the president die or become incapacitated.
However, there is no guarantee the constitution will be respected, or that grassroots supporters of el comandante will back his anointed successor, Mr. Maduro, a 50-year-old union leader known for his loyalty. Other rivals within the United Socialist Party include National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who has the backing of the military. “Chavez has led Venezuela into a very scary space of violence and uncertainty,” notes Michael Harvey, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas. “There are no democratic or institutional checks on his power. If he is no longer there tomorrow, nobody can say what will happen.”
While Mr. Chavez’s ill health brings uncertainty, it could also signal a new era of hope for Venezuelans who are disenchanted with high crime, an inefficient oil sector and soaring inflation.
With the support of Cuba, Mr. Chavez has led a bloc of leftist Latin American governments that oppose U.S. policies in the region, offering subsidized oil in exchange for political support. Mr. Chavez has defined Chavismo, making certain that no natural successor emerged during his lifetime. This is not a good thing for the movement’s longevity, but could end up being a benefit for the country’s, and the region’s, long-term political and economic stability.