Since Hugo Chávez is too ill to be inaugurated, somebody else should take over
Jan 12th 2013 | from the print edition
FOR a month Hugo Chávez has been lying in a hospital bed in Havana after undergoing his fourth operation since 2011 for cancer. Most of the facts Venezuelans have been given about their president’s condition have been sparse and contradictory. But the information minister recently declared that the patient faced “complications as a result of a severe lung infection” and a “respiratory insufficiency”. This hardly suggests that Mr Chávez is likely soon to be restored to full health; rather, he may well be dying.
Mr Chávez’s incapacity poses a constitutional problem for Venezuela, and a political problem for the whole of Latin America. He was due to be sworn in as president on January 10th, but his inauguration was postponed. Fortunately Venezuela’s constitution, which Mr Chávez pushed through in 1999, provides for such a situation. It says, in a nutshell, that if the president-elect’s incapacity is permanent, the head of the National Assembly should take over running the country while a fresh election is held; if it is temporary, the vice-president should step in for up to 180 days.
In any normal democracy one of those two things would now happen. Indeed, Mr Chávez seemed to prepare for this before his operation when he anointed Nicolás Maduro, his appointed vice-president, as his chosen successor. The National Assembly met this week and re-elected Diosdado Cabello, an army chum of Mr Chávez, as its head.
But Venezuela is not a normal democracy. Although Mr Chávez’s legitimacy derives from the ballot box, he is a former army officer who has ruled as an autocrat since 1999. He claims to head a revolutionary regime in which the exercise of power is personal. On January 8th Mr Maduro sent a letter to the assembly admitting that Mr Chávez was not fit to appear before the assembly, but saying that he would be sworn in at an unspecified later date (see article). Since he is already in post as president, this is a technicality, officials insist.
It is true that Venezuelans gave Mr Chávez a clear mandate in October: he won 55% of the vote while his main opponent, Henrique Capriles, got only 44%. But he falsely assured the voters that he had been cured. Would they really have elected a man who was, and is, not able to do the job?
Venezuela cannot afford a prolonged power vacuum. The country faces an economic crisis. Having ramped up spending to win the election, the government ran a budget deficit of 8.5% of GDP last year, according to independent economists. Plugging such a huge gap will require big spending cuts and a hefty devaluation to boost the local-currency value of oil revenues, among other unpopular measures.
Tell the truth, and apply the constitution
The other reason Venezuela needs a real leader is that Mr Chávez’s prostration has given Cuba unhealthy sway over events in the country. Cuba’s influence was already considerable: it provides Mr Chávez with intelligence and security advisers in return for Venezuelan oil. While he is in Havana, the Venezuelan president is under Cuban control. The Cubans appear to have brokered a deal under which Mr Maduro and Mr Cabello—potential rivals—ostentatiously declared their brotherly love and insisted that there was no need for a physical inauguration this week. Just imagine the fuss that most Latin Americans would make about foreign interference were the United States playing the part that Cuba has taken in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
What is missing in all this, as Venezuela’s opposition has repeatedly pointed out, is any independent verification of Mr Chávez’s medical condition. If there were a genuine prospect of his resuming office, Mr Maduro should formally take over until that time comes. If not, a fresh election should be called. Indeed, it would be in the chavistas’ interest to hold such a poll soon so as to capitalise on sympathy for Mr Chávez.
Yet everything suggests that, in defiance of the Venezuelan constitution, Mr Chávez will remain president, even if only in name. That ought to be unacceptable to Venezuela’s partners in the Mercosur trade block, led by Brazil. Last year they suspended Paraguay’s membership after its left-wing president was impeached—constitutionally, albeit with unseemly haste. They should now similarly suspend Venezuela until it adheres to its own constitution. Sadly, when it comes to defending democracy in Latin America, double standards too often trump principles. Treating Mr Chávez like an absolute monarch whose reign lasts until his dying breath is weakening the cause of democracy in the region.