Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has died of cancer, leaving a power vacuum that will be hard to fill in the oil-rich country. After Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s announcement of the president’s death, Minister of Foreign Affairs Elías Jaua announced on March 6 that elections would be called in 30 days, as the constitution stipulates, and clarified that Maduro would maintain executive powers until then.
The constitution cast doubts over the legality of Maduro’s temporary succession. It decrees that if the death or incapacitation of the president takes place before a new president is sworn in—as occurred in Venezuela—the head of the national assembly, not the vice president, should take on executive powers until elections take place.
The government declared seven days of mourning for the president and suspended classes nationwide. Maduro said that the armed forces and the national police would be on the streets to prevent violence.
According to the government, Chávez had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment at the Carlos Arvelo military hospital in Caracas, although no pictures or film footage has corroborated that and no one other than top government officials has attested to seeing him there. The president last appeared in public on December 9, 2012, when he appointed Maduro as vice-president and called on the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) and the armed forces to back Maduro if he had to assume presidential responsibilities. The Supreme Court indefinitely postponed Chávez’s presidential swearing-in ceremony on January 10, 2013. The court also ruled that Maduro and the rest of the ministers from the 2007-2013 presidentialterm would remain in their posts for the 2013-2019 term.Amidst a mix of mourning and celebration in the wake of Chavez’ death, isolated violence has occurred. Pro-government supporters attacked a journalist from Colombian news agency RCN outside the Carlos Arvelo military hospital and crowds in the streets incited traffic chaos in Caracas. Isolated lootings occurred in the eastern Anzoátegui state and shops closed early in Caracas and other urban shopping centers.
Chávez transformed Venezuelan political culture and put social inequality and poverty alleviation at the top of the political agenda. However, this came at the cost of greater authoritarianism in government as Chávez sought to consolidate his leadership. Chavez’ main legacy will be the Constitution of 1999, which guarantees a stronger welfare state, a more progressive view of human rights and a more active civil society. In the end, it was his strongest opponents who most staunchly supported the constitution.
However, the government’s current social programs are not sustainable in the context of declining oil prices. Moreover, Venezuela’s economy is more dependent than ever on the price of commodities.
Despite his leadership, popularity and power, Chávez will be remembered as the man who generated great hopes for political, economic and social change in Venezuela, but who ultimately failed to strengthen democratic institutions, tackle corruption, increase citizens’ security, and lead Venezuela toward progress and prosperity.
Chávez’ death is a game changer in Venezuelan politics and will shake up the political order. Chavismo will now try to consolidate under Maduro, who will run in the next presidential election as the PSUV candidate. Henrique Capriles, representing the coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (Coaltion of Democractic Unity—MUD), likely will run in opposition. Maduro is expected to develop a strong Chávez-like nationalist leftist discourse in the days to come, supporting new expropriations and promoting anti-United States and anti-opposition rhetoric. According to a poll by private pollster Hinterlaces, released on February 17, Maduro boasted 50 percent of voter support compared to Capriles’ 36 percent. Maduro will probably win the election, although Chávez’ absence could increase the opposition’s prospects if shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods continue to intensify in Venezuela.
Chávez’ absence creates a power vacuum that will be hard to fill and could generate an unprecedented political crisis should Maduro fail to maintain the Chavismo movement. If Maduro cannot coalesce the different Chavista civilian and military factions, the military might intervene in the government, threatening Venezuela’s political stability. The Chávez movement was closely associated with his personality, but so far the different Chavista factions seem to be gathering behind Maduro. Yet, new political actors from the Chavista opposition and military sectors could emerge to play a key role in the days to come.
Against the backdrop of political polarization, lack of judicial independence and a national assembly subordinate to the executive branch, the armed forces could assume a behind-the-scenes role as constitutional police, seeking to guarantee the democratic process and prevent political instability. Such direct or indirect military intervention could affect democratic governance in Venezuela and alter the power balance among civilian political actors. Isolated unrest and clashes between pro-government and opposition supporters could occur but they would not threaten political stability.
The political scenario is unlikely to impact oil supplies. Hampered by operational constraints, decision-making and payments at state-owned oil company PDVSA will lag and currency risk will likely remain high. The recent elimination of the bond-exchange market rate (SITME rate) and the need to narrow the extra demand for foreign exchange will continue to drive inflation and goods scarcity in Venezuela.
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