In a not-too-surprising announcement, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has confirmed ongoing rumors that he has never truly recovered from the cancer which was first diagnosed in June of 2011. In a press conference the night of December 8th he has said he is returning to Cuba for another surgery.
His whirlwind return from Cuba for less than forty-eight hours appears to be less to request the National Assembly for permission to stay in Cuba for an extended period, Chavez rarely follows the rules. It appears more an effort to assure that should something happen to him the government (and perhaps more importantly the military) throw their support to Foreign Minister/Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
According to the Venezuelan constitution, if Chavez were to die before his inauguration on January 10th the mantle of leadership would pass not to Maduro but to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. Cabello, once one of Chavez's most important advisors (and a former Vice President himself during the tumultuous 2002 when Chavez was briefly removed from power) is widely rumored to have fallen afoul of Chavez. Whether due to lack of revolutionary credentials and zeal, or because of a personal quest for power is a matter of conjecture. What is true is that Chavez was so worried about his imminent demise leading to a Cabello-led government that he flew back to Caracas to order the country to violate the constitution should he die before January 10th, and leave Maduro as head of government.
On December 9th Chavez will head back to Cuba for another surgery and then the recovery. Whether he survives the surgery, and how long he survives what is now clear is terminal cancer, is a matter of speculation. What is clear is that Venezuela's opposition is, as usual, in trouble. Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who challenged Chavez in a grueling campaign for the presidency has returned to campaign in an attempt to hold his seat in Miranda. A recent Hinterlaces poll shows him at least five points down to challenger (and former Vice President) Elias Jaua. Should Capriles, Venezuela's best-known opposition leader who holds almost rock-star status, lose to the uninspiring Jaua, Venezuela's rudderless opposition will have nobody to challenge Nicolas Maduro in the upcoming presidential elections.
This was of course Chavez's intention. He knew that in order to guarantee the sustainability of his Bolivarian revolution, he had to defeat Capriles at all cost. As we now know, the cost of Chavez's presidential campaign appears to be his own life -- politics is indeed a cruel mistress. However, having destroyed the opposition -- again -- Chavez can move to the hereafter safe in the knowledge that, like Juan Peron in Argentina, he will continue to control Venezuela's politics well after he is gone.
What a Maduro government will look like is yet to be seen. Maduro lacks Chavez's personality and political skill. His place in the revolution is due mainly to his steadfast devotion to Hugo Chavez. As Chavez's illness has advanced, he has tried to portray the image of a moderate. But as the man who has guided Venezuela's relationship with Iran, is the main implementing force behind the Bolivarian Alliance's destabilizing efforts and is the Castro brothers' pick for Chavez's successor, Maduro might not be the moderate he appears.
Time will guide what happens next, but for now Hugo Chavez's impending demise is a political tsunami that will lap the shores of almost every country in the region. It will effectively signal the end of an era. The question remains, "To whom will South America belong after Chavez?"