The following piece by Boris Munoz appeared originally at The New Yorker.
After two weeks of rumors about the health of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, his Vice-President, Nicolás Maduro, announced on Sunday that the situation was “delicate.” He had flown to Cuba, where Chávez is being treated, to be at his side. This came just a few days after a televised Christmas Eve speech in which Maduro said that Chávez had called him from the CIMEQ—an exclusive hospital in Havana—and was “up and taking exercise.” That announcement had increased the confusion that reigns in Venezuela because of its blatant contradictions with an official report issued only a few hours before, which said that Chávez was on strict bed rest.
On Monday morning, Chávez was still alive, though there are indications that the end could come at any time. For more than a year, he has been governing not as a physical presence but as a shadow. His health has been cloaked in mystery ever since June, 2011, when he announced that he’d had an emergency operation in Havana. All he said was that a tumor the size of a baseball had been removed from his pelvic area and a biopsy had revealed it to contain cancerous cells. No one knows what kind of cancer he has, nor what stage it’s at, except for a circle of loyalists in Cuba and Venezuela who have kept the secret with the zeal of a religious sect. Speculation about his health has become the national pastime, as he has travelled back and forth to Cuba for treatment; so, too, had the question of who would succeed him.
It matters a great deal whether Chávez dies this week—which sources in Venezuela say is very possible—or next. January 10th is the date of the inaugural ceremony for Chávez’s third term of office. (He was elected with fifty-five per cent of the vote on October 7th.) According to the Venezuelan constitution, if he were to die before that date, Maduro would finish the present term and then the President of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, would assume the presidency and call elections within thirty days. If Chávez were to survive for his inauguration, and then could not continue, Maduro would be in charge of calling elections. And it’s very possible that the presidential candidate would be Maduro, designated by Chávez as his heir. Maduro is the candidate that Chávez has asked people to vote for after he is gone.
The struggle for a successor is in full swing. Maduro and Cabello, Chávez’s two potential heirs, represent two opposing strands of chavismo, his brand of left-wing nationalism.
For fourteen years, since he came to power in 1998, Chávez has been the alpha and omega of his “Bolivarian revolution.” He has dealt with Venezuela as if it were a corporation and he himself its absolutist C.E.O., obsessed with micromanagement, relying on a few advisors to hold the country under tight control. That time is nearing an end. Deep fissures are already present. Chavismo is a political movement with marked divisions between its military and civilian wings. Chávez, a former Army paratrooper, has been a leader on both fronts, playing either military or civilian leader when convenient. But the civilian-military division reflects an even deeper one based on two differing conceptualizations of the Bolivarian revolution: a nationalist revolution or a socialist one based on the Cuban model. These internal struggles were why Chávez has had to interrupt his treatment in Havana several times and return abruptly to Caracas.
Maduro is a civilian with a background as a union leader, and has strong ties to the Cuban government. He has been the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the past six years and has been an obedient international operator for Chávez. His negotiations have been instrumental in forging alliances with the heterodox regimes of Iran, Syria, Belarus, and the Latin American partners of the Bolivarian revolution—Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and some of the Caribbean nations. He has achieved important successes, such as Venezuela’s recent acceptance as a member state the South American trade bloc MERCOSUR after years of stiff opposition from Paraguay. Maduro has the approval of the international left and is firmly endorsed as a candidate by the Castro brothers.
Cabello is a different story. A former Army member, he is generally considered to be the government’s tough guy and enforcer. He helped Chávez impose unpopular measures, such as the highly controversial shutdown of the commercial TV broadcaster RCTV, which Chávez had linked to Venezuela’s political opposition. Cabello is also considered the broker between the government and the boligarchy (a term that refers to Chávez’s own generation of nouveau rich). Unlike the civilian members of Chávez’s inner circle, until recently he had never set foot in Havana, nor has he courted the Castros. Cabello’s power base is the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (P.S.U.V.), of which he is vice-president, and the Army, where he has strong support. Unlike Maduro, Cabello is connected to the group of nationalist Army officers who conspired with Chávez to seize power from the beginning of the eighties.
Both Cabello and Maduro are loyal to their leader, but many think that Cabello would have no hesitation in forging an alliance between the military and the new Venezuelan oligarchy, distancing himself from Cuba, and avoiding extending socialism à la Castro. In a recent, virulent attack, the German sociologist Heinz Dieterich, one of the ideologues of Chávez’s so-called “Twenty-First Century Socialism,” compared Cabello with Stalin, accusing him of planning to dethrone Maduro and do away with Chávez’s political legacy. “The Thermidor (or betrayer) of the Revolution is personified by Diosdado Cabello,” wrote Dieterich.
Until now, the internal crisis of chavismo had been buried. Neither Maduro nor Cabello has Chávez’s charisma, nor does either man have a group of personal followers powerful enough to allow him to make a concerted bid for power. In public, both have had to behave as though they put unity above all personal ambitions. In doing so, they have imitated Chávez’s public hooligan style—punctuated by insults to the opposition, such as calling his rival Henrique Capriles a pig and a Nazi. (Capriles is the grandson of Polish Holocaust survivors.) They’ve also denounced supposed imperialist conspiracies to create chaos throughout the country.
Last week, they appeared together on TV to scotch the rumors about their rivalry. “We are like brothers,” said Cabello. Maduro, on his side, gave a Mona Lisa smile. But a week later, Maduro gave a warning about “counter-revolutionaries who aim to divide our grassroots support.” His allusion suggests that the decision on a successor is not free from scuffles.
“The military men who were part of Chávez’s original group are socialists but they don’t like Cuba,” Vladimir Gessen, an influential political analyst and former congressman, told me this week. “They pardon Chávez’s relationship with the Castros, because it’s clear that Chávez would never let himself be manipulated by them.”
In Gessen’s analysis, Cabello would set up a militarist government based on the control exercised by the officer class over the Army and the government. (Eleven of twenty Chavist state governors have been officers of high or middle rank and many of them are presumably on Cabello’s side). Under the tutelage of Havana, on the other hand, Maduro would intensify the Cuban socialist model, which is rejected by the nationalist military. “That’s why the sector supporting Cabello would do everything in its power to stop Maduro becoming president,” Gessen said. To chavistas, this prediction is a fantasy being projected by a political opposition that wants to see Maduro and Cabello pitted against each other, and an end to chavismo.
Chávez’s followers are preparing for a future without him. “Right now what’s at stake is the survival of the revolution,” the insider told me. “It would be suicidal to split the party. But in the medium term there will be a struggle for power, because over the last fourteen years, Chávez has created everything in his own image. Without him at the helm, conflict between the different military and civilian interest groups will become inevitable.” The big question still is whether chavismo is possible without Chávez.