Uncertain health of Chavez stirs talk of successor in Venezuela
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.”