VENEZUELA | Analysis

Venezuela government: Hugo Chavez fighting ‘severe pulmonary infection’


As Venezuelans focus on the health of their president, behind-the-scenes maneuvering for the power to lead the nation has already begun.

The physical weakening of cancer-ridden Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is leading his potential heirs to maneuver for the reins, in a delicate game played behind the scenes that pits the interests of Cuba against those of Chavist military brass and those of the so-called “bolibourgeois.”

Even though apparently solid, Chavism seems to be unraveling, said analysts who pointed to the confrontation between the side led by Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro — annointed as heir by Chávez himself — and the side led by the current chairman of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.

According to analysts consulted by El Nuevo Herald, Maduro represents the Chavist sector that is ideologically aligned with the interests of Cuba, while Cabello heads the segment of nationalist military officers.

And it is precisely within the National Assembly, the body that has to choose its new chairman on Saturday, where the parties seem destined to fight the first great skirmish that could define the future of the transition, within the framework of Maduro’s efforts to wrest from Cabello the leadership of the legislative power.

“The problem now begins among themselves,” said political advisor Esteban Gerbasi. “It is a very delicate situation.”

According to the Venezuelan Constitution, the chairman of the National Assembly must assume the presidency of the republic after Jan. 10, if Chávez is declared to be “totally absent” before being sworn in.

The situation would be different if Chávez is sworn in. In that case, Maduro could be ratified as president and would become interim president until new elections are held. New elections would have to be held in a short time, same as if Cabello assumed the presidency, Gerbasi said.

So far, the Venezuelan government has maintained silence over Chávez’s ability to assume the presidency next week, saying little about his health condition except that it is “stable.”

Those bare pronouncements were repeated Wednesday by Minister of Science and Technology Jorge Arreaza, who is Chávez’s son-in-law.

“The medical team explained to us that President Chávez’s condition remains stable within his delicate picture,” Arreaza wrote in his Twitter account.

“Comandante Chávez continues to battle hard and sends all his love to our people. Perseverance and patience!” he wrote in another publication.

Arreaza has been in Cuba with the president’s children since Chávez was operated on for a cancer whose location and extent are unknown.

But few Venezuelans think Chávez will travel to Caracas next week to be sworn in, leaving it possible that the swearing-in ceremony will be held in Cuba. That would not be seen kindly by Venezuelans.

Meanwhile, Venezuelans’ attention is beginning to focus on the election of the new leadership of the National Assembly, to be held Saturday at a session summoned by Cabello. Maduro is promoting the candidacy of deputy Blanca Eekhout.

Political analyst Martín Rodil said that Cabello is working hard to achieve the majority he needs among the 165 deputies in the National Assembly to remain in his post.

“So far, Diosdado has written down in his favor the names of at least 33 Chavist deputies and is working to increased that number, contacting even some opposition deputies,” Rodil said.

“In that situation, the opposition could play a decisive role. The opposition deputies could define not only the future of the National Assembly but also who will lead the nation during the transition," he said.

Rodil explained that the internal struggle within Chavism is being waged by the wing led by Maduro, who is clearly the candidate of Cuba’s Castro brothers, and the wing led by Cabello, a sector constituted by nationalist elements who have amassed huge fortunes in the shade of Chavism.

“Nicolás is the best puppet the Cubans can have, because not even Chávez was as willing to march by their side. Diosdado, in turn, is not there because of ideology. He’s there because of the money,” Rodil said.

It is for that reason that Cabello is seen poorly by the regime in Cuba.

“The Cubans are enormously afraid of Diosdado and his ambition. They went against him in 2008 precisely because they saw him as very ambitious. They couldn’t control him because he was independent from Cuban influence,” said Rodil, referring to the period when Cabello was separated from power by Chavism.

“If Diosdado manages to retain his chairmanship in the Assembly and then goes on to the presidency of the republic, he will provoke a de-facto schism in Chavism. And that’s the scenario that worries Havana the most,” Rodil said.

That’s the reason behind the efforts to place Eekhout in the chairmanship of the Assembly, Rodil said. "She is a pawn for Havana."

Nevertheless, it will be very difficult to remove Cabello from the chairmanship of the Assembly, said analyst Vilma Petrash.

“He is a very able individual, who appeared to be defenestrated within Chavism, but even when he was marginated and held no public post, he continued to build the party while strengthening his internal alliances. It was [Cabello] who practically built that political machine,” Petrash said.

According to Petrash, Cabello also has accumulated enormous economic power, in addition to exercising great control over the ruling PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and maintaining close ties within the National Armed Forces.

“He belongs to a military sector that, without being monolithic, needs a figure like Diosdado, who is a nationalist officer but not a Marxist. Probably, [the army] will be the determining factor in Venezuela,” Petrash said.

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