January 22, 2013

Presidential Inauguration Day: For citizens of the U.S. and most other democracies, the event signifies either a peaceful transfer of power to another administration or the opportunity for a re-elected president to make cabinet changes. But in Venezuela, this year’s presidential inauguration day, Jan. 10, was mired in controversy. The country’s bombastic re-elected president, Hugo Chávez, has been battling cancer and couldn’t make it to the ceremony. Chávez’s absence generated a constitutional crisis in a country now famous for the instability of its rules. Amherst political science professor Javier Corrales—an expert on Latin American politics who has been quoted on the Venezuelan crisis byCNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times among others—teaches a course called “The Political Economy of Petro States: Venezuela Compared” and has been watching the nation for many years. He spoke recently with Public Affairs about what Chávez’s absence means.


Could you explain the current situation in Venezuela?

Chávez is both the president and the president-elect of the country; in October he was reelected for a third time, which is itself unusual, as most presidential democracies have term limits, but not Venezuela. According to the very same constitution that Chávez helped draft, every presidential term in Venezuela ends on Jan. 10. Expiration dates for administrations is a very important provision in all democracies. In fact, it could be the most important provision of any democratic constitution—to stipulate when it is that a particular administration ends.  The problem is that Chávez was—and still is—ill and could not be present for the event.

So what does the Venezuelan constitution say about situations like this? If the ‘president-elect’ is facing an ‘absolute absence,’ then the president of the National Assembly is sworn in and calls for an election. An ‘absolute absence’ can mean death but it can mean other things, such as extreme illness or some inability to take office. But people in his party were refusing to say that Chávez was ‘absolutely absent.’ If anything, he was temporarily absent and the Venezuelan constitution doesn’t say anything about what happens if a president-elect is temporarily absent.

The constitution does say what needs to happen if the existing president, rather than the president-elect, is temporarily absent. There, the provision is that the vice president takes over.  So my guess is that there was a dispute at the top echelon of the party about whom to swear in if Chávez is not sworn in—the president of the National Assembly, a man named Diosdado Cabello, or the vice president, Nicolás Maduro.  To avoid making this decision, the party decided to not swear anyone in.  The official decision was to simply postpone the swearing in ceremony, until further notice, and instead, have thousands of supporters make a public oath of loyalty to Chávez on Jan. 10.

The problem with postponing a swearing-in ceremony is that you have an outgoing government, a cabinet member in this case, telling the country, “We’re not going to step down; we have the power to change when it is that we are constitutionally mandated to step down.” This is not exactly a democratic precedent.

The government justifies its decision by saying that they are not doing anything wrong because Chávez has been reelected and they are ‘preserving continuity,’ which is what people wanted. Nevertheless, a major constitutional principle is being violated. For the government, the inauguration is a formality. For the opposition, this is a major violation of the constitution.

How are other countries in the region reacting to the crisis?

Prior to this crisis, most nations in South America had pretty good relations with Venezuela, not because they are ideologically aligned—although many of them are—but because of the economics. Venezuela is either sending a lot of aid to, or importing many goods and services from, Latin American and Caribbean countries. Venezuela exports virtually only oil and produces very little for itself, so almost everything else gets imported from places like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico (not just the United States and China). Venezuela has one of the largest import bills in the region. It even imports gasoline, which is puzzling for a petro-state. This is one reason why Brazil, a major supplier of goods and services to Venezuela, was so eager to invite Venezuela to join Mercosur, a trade partnership in South America led by Brazil. Needless to say, all of these countries have very good relations with Venezuela—and they are not interested in jeopardizing these ties— so I don’t think you’ll see much pressure from abroad to force the Venezuelan government to do anything other than what it wants to do.

What do you think the people of the country are feeling?

Chávez’s supporters are pleased.  They like the fact that nobody in the ruling party said, ‘I should be sworn in!’ because they wanted Chávez, period, and are having trouble believing that Chávez might die. The non-Chavistas are appalled. Those groups see the whole affair as one more example of how lightly this government treats the rules. The opposition has been fighting the Chávez government for 14 years.  And while they have narrowed the electoral gap between them and the president, there is fatigue. They do well in elections, but they still do not have numbers to defeat this president.

Is Chávez as popular as he has been in the past?

There were two important elections in 2012—one for president and the other for governors and state legislators—and in each the president’s party won by 11 points, more or less. By U.S. standards, that is a very large margin. But by Latin American standards since the 2000s, that is a small margin of victory. The average incumbent president in Latin America gets re-elected by a 28-point margin of difference.  Chávez’s electoral coalition is shrinking.

What is being said about Chávez’s health?

His last public appearance was in early December, when he surprised everyone by flying back from Havana, Cuba, where he was being treated for cancer. He showed up in Caracas at 2:30 a.m. on a Friday. The whole point of the visit was to announce who his successor would be. And that’s when he announced very clearly that if something were to happen to him, if he became ‘incapacitated’ to carry on, his vice president, Nicolás Maduro, was to be his successor. He then immediately left for Cuba and nobody has seen him or heard his voice since. Imagine a situation in which President Obama, to give an example, travels to another country for cancer treatment and for more than a month now, there is no image of him.  We do not know what kind of cancer he has, how widespread it is, his prognosis, where the surgery was—a lot of things. The government is saying that suffered serious complications during and after surgery, and as of mid-January, he was “recovering” from a pulmonary infection.  Many in the opposition are calling for an independent commission to make a medical judgment on Chávez’s capacity to exercise the presidency. It’s not that they necessarily want Chávez to return to the presidency, but they want to force the administration to comply with rules or perhaps catch them concealing something.

How would you describe Maduro? Do you think he will be easier for the U.S. and other countries to deal with?

People say there is a pragmatic side to him. But he is a radical ideologue capable of enormous extremism.  He was Venezuela’s foreign minister from 2006 until early this year, and he has been responsible for some of the country’s foreign policy excesses, such as supporting Iran, Syria and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Yet he has also been able to normalize relations with Colombia, which shows a moderate side. Nevertheless, since Maduro became Chávez’s caretaker at home, he has behaved very extremist. He talks about the opposition in very menacing, very threatening terms.  He rejects “reconciliation.” He has already imposed one major fine on an important news-source, Globovisión, for contradicting the government’s interpretation of what needed to happen on Jan. 10. If Maduro has a pragmatic and moderate side to him, Venezuelans have yet to see it.

Is it pretty much a given that Maduro will be elected president if Chávez is gone?

Analysts are having a hard time figuring out why the government isn’t following one of the constitutional routes available: to declare the president absent and call for an election. This is puzzling because this is still an incredibly propitious moment for the ruling party. Chavistas are having some type of otherworldly experience.  The more unseen Chávez has become, the more identified they have come to feel toward their beloved leader. In this quasi-religious moment, they will vote for whomever the party proposes—Maduro or otherwise. However, the longer the government waits to hold an election, the popularity of the ruling party will decline because increasingly unpopular decisions will have to be made—spending cutbacks, devaluation, hiring and firing decisions in the cabinet and so-on.

You don’t think there will be a power struggle once Chávez is gone?

I am one of the people who is arguing that we actually just saw a power struggle. But round one was solved, probably with the help of the Cuban government and side payments to the parties involved.  The decision to not swear in anyone—not Chávez, not Maduro, not Cabello—was a type of temporary settlement.  But as a result of this decision, Venezuela has ended up with a two-headed government. There is Maduro, the vice president, who is not the president because no one has sworn him in, and Diasdado Cabello, who should have been sworn in after Jan. 10. And both are governing Venezuela jointly (with feedback from the Cuban government). This is not what should happen in democracies. You do not have two-headed Executive branches. These figures each represent two factions and two different ideological wings of the party. Sooner or later there is going to be disagreement.  And this two-headed government could experience further splits. There are other towering figures in the government:  the energy minister, for instance, and a few military generals. Without a legitimate president ruling over these power brokers, I cannot imagine long-lasting unity at the top leadership of the ruling party.

Who do you think is better for U.S. interests?

The United States has been very savvy to not get sucked into a David and Goliath-type of fight with Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has been looking for that fight since 2003, and for a while, the U.S. came close to falling into this trap. What the U.S. should do is not say too much and see what happens. There’s going to be a Chavista government either way, whether the U.S. denounces this or not, so why issue criticisms that are just going to give the government more ammunition? The status quo is not favorable for the United States, agreed. But it is not that objectionable either.  Venezuela is one of the most reliable oil suppliers to the United States. People like to think of the Chávez administration as the most anti-imperialist in Latin America, if not the world, but an alternative way to think of it is as the most reliable enabler of U.S. foreign policy because it provides a lot of fuel, literally. Why would the United States tinker with that?

To what extent would the U.S. feel the ripples of political instability in Venezuela?

Political instability in Venezuela would be a catastrophe for the United States and Venezuelans. Venezuela is the fifth most important supplier of oil to the United States. Venezuela is also a neighboring state of an important ally of the United States in the region, Colombia. From the U.S. perspective, Colombia is currently in the right course. The drug trade hasn’t abated, but drug-related violence is down and peace talks with guerrillas are underway.  If Venezuela becomes unstable, Colombia’s precarious pacification process will suffer. The United States does not need another hotspot in the world.

To read more about Corrales’s take on the Venezuelan crisis, visit https://www.amherst.edu/users/C/jcorrales/ven_succession_crisis_2013.