Venezuela government: Hugo Chavez fighting ‘severe pulmonary infection’


Amid reports that the president’s health was worsening, sources said the Cuban regime was orchestrating a Venezuela transition plan.

Watch the televised statement: (in Spanish)

Venezuela’s government said late Thursday that President Hugo Chávez was having trouble breathing, and sources disclosed to El Nuevo Herald a succession plan being orchestrated in Havana.

Officials announced late Thursday that the 58-year-old leader had developed a “severe pulmonary infection” in the wake of his Dec. 11 cancer surgery.

In a brief address, Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said the government had “full confidence” in Chávez’s medical team and warned the nation that global media outlets were using the leader’s illness as part of a “psychological warfare” campaign to “destabilize the republic.”

As for succession, the chairman of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would temporarily assume the presidency of Venezuela while awaiting new elections in which the current Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, would be the Chavist candidate — if everyone agrees to a plan orchestrated in Havana with the wide-ranging participation of the Cuban regime, said sources close to the situation.

The plan, whose details seem to have been completed this week in Cuba, envisions an internal reorganization within the ranks of Chavism in the expectation that Chávez will not be able to serve a new term because of his advanced cancer.

One source said that the preparation for the transition began months ago under the direction of Chávez himself and that final details are now being worked out.

Another source, who had access to information about the meetings in Cuba, said that the government of Raul Castro exerts great influence over the decisions being made right now. The sources spoke with El Nuevo Herald under condition of anonymity.

“The Cuban sponsors are working behind the scenes to try to create a sort of Politburo, a council that operates in consensus and guarantees the stability of Chavism in Venezuela by bringing together potential heirs and rivals,” said one of the sources, who had access to that information in Cuba.

“The Cubans want Nicolás Maduro to [eventually] assume the presidency, to be the head of the council and serve as a mediator between the various factions and personalities” of Chavism, the source said.

But the architects of the transition don’t think it convenient for Maduro to enter Miraflores Palace immediately, because the Venezuelan Constitution establishes that the chairman of the National Assembly must take the reins of power in case the President-elect is in no condition to assume his new mandate. To try to avoid damage to the legitimacy of Chavism, the plan’s architects propose that the presidency be assumed ad interim by Cabello, who, shortly thereafter, should call for a new presidential election with Maduro as the ruling party’s candidate.

The source said that this strategy is causing concern in Cuba, because Cabello has accumulated much power in the past several years and represents a nationalistic sector within Chavism with few ties to the Cuban revolution.

Nevertheless, the plan’s designers believe that Cabello is at this moment indispensable for the sustainability of Chavism in a post-Chávez era, because he enjoys great influence over the military brass.

“Under the plan discussed in Havana, Diosdado Cabello will continue to be the chairman of the National Assembly and will be given additional powers and influence,” the source said.

“The Cuban agenda also includes an effort to control key members in Chavez’s entourage, outside the federal core, who have won election battles on their own and are in a position to handle the machinery of the Socialist Party in their regions, in addition to accumulating regional power in their bases,” the source added.

Among them: the former Interior Minister and now governor of Aragua, Tarke El Aissami; the former Defense Minister and current governor of Trujillo, Henry Rangel Silva; and Chávez’s brother and governor of Barinas, Adán Chávez.

The Miami Herald’sf Jim Wyss contributed.

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