Transitions

Venezuela: the succession

The probability that Hugo Chávez may soon leave the political stage is increasing. Which member of his movement is poised to lead it? Information on Hugo Chávez’s health over the past year has been heavy on innuendo and short on fact. But in recent weeks, Chávez has virtually disappeared from the public airwaves, which suggests ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

The probability that Hugo Chávez may soon leave the political stage is increasing. Which member of his movement is poised to lead it?

Information on Hugo Chávez’s health over the past year has been heavy on innuendo and short on fact. But in recent weeks, Chávez has virtually disappeared from the public airwaves, which suggests that his condition is serious. During his rare public appearances, he appeared sickly and unwell. On two recent occasions, he broke down and cried while pleading for his life.

In short, this is a very sick man who may not have much longer to live. The question that begs asking, then, is who can lead the chavista movement in the post-Chávez years?

There are four possible candidates for president who are regularly discussed, plus two game-changing wild cards. At the top of many people’s lists is Diosdado Cabello, a former military man who was discharged after participating in Chávez’s failed 1992 coup. (He’s on the right in the photo above.) A close advisor to Chávez, he made his name as a pragmatic telecommunications czar early in the Chávez years, and many businessmen viewed him as someone they could get along with. Since then, he has occupied a gamut of chavista positions: from minister to vice-president, from elected governor to (current) president of the National Assembly and leader of the government party.

Cabello has several things going for him. He knows everyone inside the movement and has firm control over the party apparatus. However, Cabello also brings significant liabilities. Stories about his massive wealth are a dime a dozen. His acerbic personality is miles away from the affable, folksy Chávez. More importantly, he already lost an important election to the opposition’s candidate, Henrique Capriles (who unseated the incumbent Cabello to become governor of Miranda state in 2008).

Vice President Elías Jaua is another frequently mentioned candidate. Jaua is more than 15 years Chávez’s junior, and made his name as a student leader in the early 1990s. A sociologist by training, his most notable role in the chavista administration (prior to being named vice-president) was as Minister for Land Reform, where he personally supervised the seizure of thousands of acres of private property.

As stipulated by the constitution, Jaua is next in line if something happens to Chávez, and his public role has increased exponentially in the wake of the president’s illness. However, he has only been elected into office once, as a member of the Constitutional Convention, back in 1999. While he has occupied various positions in the chavista bureaucracy, he is inexperienced on the national stage, and is probably the least known of all the possible successors. He is currently slated to run for governor of Miranda (Capriles’ current position).

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has been asuming an increasingly prominent role. A former union leader, Maduro has performed better in his current position, in the views of some experts, than his humble origins would have suggested. As foreign minister, he has cultivated close ties to the Cuban elite. While relatively untested on the electoral stage (he was previously a legislator, chosen in an election where the opposition did not participate), some find him to be the most congenial of all the front-runners.

Rounding out the top four is Adán Chávez, the president’s brother and governor of Barinas. A grim-faced, radical ideologue, the elder Chávez shares the president’s name but none of his people skills. He is his brother’s close confidant and mentor, and as a former ambassador to Cuba, he is highly attuned to the needs and interests of the Cuban elite.

There are, however, two wild cards.

Chávez has frequently stated he would like to turn power over to a woman, and there are two in particular in a list of potential candidates: his daughters Maria Gabriela and Rosa Virginia.

Rosa Virginia is the eldest. She met her husband, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, while they were both studying diplomacy. She has frequently appeared by her father’s side during his convalescence, yet she has never given a speech nor held public office.

The second oldest daughter, Maria Gabriela, has also appeared alongside her father in official acts but has never been known to give a speech. She is apparently a companion of one of the grandchildren of Salvador Allende.

Neither of Chávez’s daughters would appear to be politically inclined. However, a tragic end to the Hugo Chávez presidency may propel them to take the leadership of the movement, much like Sonia Gandhi, Violeta Chamorro, Corazón Aquino, or Aung Saan Suu Kyi in their respective countries. After all, history is littered with political heiresses that are reluctantly plunged into positions of leadership after the loss of a loved one. A Chávez dynasty in Venezuela cannot be ruled out.

None of the candidates are perfect, and all have important shortcomings. While some are untested, others are disliked. While some are favored by the Cuban government, others are the darlings of the Venezuelan military. Regardless of what happens, opinion polls suggest Capriles could beat any of the top four candidates.

The decision to center chavismo on a single person, and prevent the emergence of alternative leaders, may yet come back to haunt Venezuela’s current regime.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola