Un­cer­tain health of Chavez stirs talk of suc­ces­sor in Venezuela

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY STEPHEN LEVY

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, be­ing treated in Cuba for a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness, is main­tain­ing power over his coun­try from more than a thou­sand miles away while spec­u­la­tion builds that he could be dy­ing.

The Venezue­lan for­eign min­istry this week in­sisted that Mr. Chavez is re­cov­er­ing from surgery for a “pelvic ab­scess” in a Havana hos­pi­tal. Mr. Chavez spoke on tele­vi­sion June 28 in his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance in two weeks.

But the post­pone­ment of a July 5 re­gional sum­mit com­mem­o­rat­ing the bi­cen­ten­nial of the coun­try is lead­ing to spec­u­la­tion from Wash­ing­ton an­a­lysts about how Venezuela would fare with­out its po­lar­iz­ing leader.

“Venezuela is not par­tic­u­larly equipped, in­sti­tu­tion­ally speak­ing, to run with­out a Chavez at the helm,” said Larry Birns, di- rec­tor of the Coun­cil on Hemi­spheric Af­fairs. “He’s the glue that holds it all to­gether.”

Mark Fal­coff, a for­eign-pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, said that there can be no “chav­ismo with­out Chavez” — a ref­er­ence to the cult of per­son­al­ity that sur­rounds the 58-year-old po­lit­i­cal boss.

“There is sim­ply no one in the regime who com­bines his au­dac­ity, his reck­less­ness, his flair for show­man­ship, and his raw pop­u­lar ap­peal to roughly 40 per­cent of Venezue­lan so­ci­ety,” he wrote last week in the Na­tional Re­view On­line.

Mr. Fal­coff warned that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment could “col­lapse into civil war” if Mr. Chavez dies.

How­ever, if he re­cov­ers and seeks a fourth term in 2012, his record as a “dic­ta­tor [. . . ] will be on trial in the next elec­tion.” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­hti­nen, chair­woman of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

“The Venezue­lan peo­ple are hun­gry for demo­cratic gov­er­nance, and for lead­ers who will re­spect and pro­tect their ba­sic rights and free­doms. Chavez´s fo­cus is on con­sol­i­dat­ing his own power,” the Florida Repub­li­can told The Wash­ing­ton Times on Thurs­day.

Venezuela’s vi­tal oil in­dus­try likely would sur­vive in­tact re­gard­less of Mr. Chavez’s health, one an­a­lyst said.

“Who­ever the new gov­ern­ment is, it has a vested in­ter­est in keep­ing the money flow­ing,” said Peter Zei­han, vice pres­i­dent of anal­y­sis for Strat­for Global In­tel­li­gence.

Venezuela is the four thlargest source of for­eign oil for the United States.

In Caracas, the for­eign min­istr y said June 29 that Mr. Chavez “finds him­self in the mid­dle of a process of re­cu­per­a­tion and ex­tremely strict med­i­cal treat­ment.”

He un­der­went an op­er­a­tion June 10 for what the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment called a “pelvic ab­scess.” How­ever, some an­a­lysts suspect Mr. Chavez may be suf­fer­ing from a more se­ri­ous con­di­tion.

In a June 27 re­port, Strat­for cited an un­named mem­ber of Mr. Chavez’s med­i­cal staff as say­ing he has prostate cancer.

The next day, the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment re­leased pho­to­graphs and a video of Mr. Chavez with for­mer Cuban Pres­i­dent Fidel Cas­tro.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers claim that Mr. Chavez’s ab­sence has left a power vac­uum be­cause no one is gov­ern­ing dur­ing his hos­pi­tal­iza­tion. Vice Pres­i­dent Elias Jaua dis­puted those charges.

“Pres­i­dent Chavez has not stopped work­ing,” said Mr. Jaua, who read mes­sages posted on the Mr. Chavez’s Twit­ter ac­count on June 24 on na­tional tele­vi­sion.

An­to­nio Ledezma, op­po­si­tion mem­ber and mayor of Caracas, replied, “You can’t gov­ern a coun­try through Twit­ter.”

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