The announcement Tuesday that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez had died from an undisclosed form of cancer came as no surprise.
The ailing 58-year-old leader hadn’t been seen or heard from since Dec. 11, when he traveled to Cuba to undergo his fourth surgery. His predawn return to Venezuela last month led many observers to believe that Chavez was near death.
What is a bit disturbing is that Vice President Nicolas Maduro chose to announce Chavez’s death while also suggesting that the Venezuelan leader’s cancer was induced by enemies of the state, who may have poisoned the president, according to El Universal, a daily newspaper in Caracas. Maduro provided no evidence to support that claim, only saying that he would appoint a special commission to investigate the issue.
I think Maduro’s allegation, even if brought on by grief, is yet another indication of the deeply troubling political times ahead for Venezuela as it moves to elect a new president. The country has been in a kind of political limbo ever since Chavez traveled to Cuba. He was too ill to even attend his swearing-in ceremony.
Venzuela’s constitution mandates new elections if the president dies in office. Though Chavez publicly said he wanted Maduro, a former union organizer and foreign minister, to succeed him, it’s unclear whether that will be enough for voters. The vice president lacks the charisma and fiery oratory style that Chavez used to draw supporters and win elections.
I think Maduro understands he’s not a magnetic political figure like Chavez, and so he is going on the attack and attempting to suggest that Chavez’s legacy and socialist revolution are under threat. For example, this past week he said that Henrique Capriles, the newly elected governor of Miranda and the leading opposition leader, was in the United States holding meetings with political enemies of Venezuela. And on Tuesday, Maduro announced that a U.S. Embassy military attache would be expelled for attempting to destabilize the country.
Maduro’s aggressive tactics are a familiar strategy. Chavez repeatedly accused foreign interests of trying to unseat him, even saying the United States was behind the 2002 coup that briefly led to his ouster. He was returned to power two days later.
The vice president’s tactics, however, are very damaging. Venezuela is already a deeply polarized country that is split between supporters of the president and critics who say Chavez was little more than a Latin America caudillo. Maduro’s attempt to suggest that Venezuela is vulnerable to foreign attacks or coups will only serve to raise the specter of violence in the country.
A former paratrooper, Chavez was swept into office in 1999 promising to help the poor and end the corruption and mismanagement that had for decades kept the country’s vast oil wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Nearly 80% of Venezuelans lived in poverty when he took office, even though the country had one of the largest petroleum reserves outside the Middle East. Chavez was reelected three times on a similar platform.
The truth is that Chavez’s influence over the country isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, no matter who is elected. The political parties that once dominated the landscape have disappeared, and even opposition leaders concede that more must be done to address the country’s social problems.