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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chávez Illness Sparks Succession Talk -

Chávez Illness Sparks Succession Talk

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez attends an United Socialist Party of Venezuela event in La Guaira outside Caracas in January.
Venezuelan officials scrambled Thursday to reassure compatriots that President Hugo Chávez was not seriously ill after his brother said the president would remain in a Cuban hospital for up to 12 more days, making it likely that Mr. Chávez will be away from the country for nearly a month.
The absence has sparked furious speculation about the president's health and led many in Venezuela to ask: What happens if the former army officer who has ruled Venezuela for 12 years is suddenly incapacitated or even dies?
"Nothing will ever be the same," said Juan Carlos Zapata, a political analyst in Caracas. "This is the first signal that Chávez has an end and that there is nobody to take over. He might come back, but nothing will be the same."
On Wednesday night, Mr. Chávez's brother Adan said he had just returned from Havana where Mr. Chávez was "satisfactorily" recuperating from an emergency operation on June 10 to treat a pelvic abscess, a pus-filled cavity that can result from injury or infection.
Speculation coming from Cuba and Venezuela has focused on the possibility that Mr. Chávez has prostate cancer, and has had his prostate removed. A senior Venezuelan official didn't respond to emailed questions about the speculation.
Mr. Chávez's return to Caracas could take place in 10 or 12 days, his brother said on a television program. Venezuela's Defense Minister Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa said Thursday that Mr. Chávez was "stronger than ever," and would be back "soon."
Under Venezuela's constitution, Vice President Elias Jaua would take the helm if Mr. Chávez is incapacitated. But whether he could remain in power long enough to preside over presidential elections scheduled for December 2012 is open to question, analysts say.

Staying Power

1992: Then-Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez leads a failed coup attempt.

1998-99: Promising to help the poor, Chávez wins a landslide victory in presidential elections. A referendum expands presidential term to two terms of six years.
2000: Chávez handily wins second presidential election under new constitution.
April 2002: Civil unrest leads to a brief coup attempt.
Dec. 2002-Feb. 2003: Chávez purges opponents during a strike at state-oil giant PDVSA.
2004: Helped by ramped up social spending, Chávez wins an opposition-initiated referendum.
2006: Aided by high oil prices, Chávez wins a second full term.
2007: Chávez's attempt to abolish term limits in a referendum is defeated.
2009: Chávez holds another referendum on abolishing term limits and wins. He plans to stand for presidential elections in 2012.
A populist caudillo—or strongman—whose rule rests on the personal and emotional tie he has developed with many poor Venezuelans, Mr. Chávez has no natural successor, analysts say.
"Chavismo without Chávez is not possible," said Alberto Barrera, a co-author of a biography of Mr. Chávez. "Chávez, who is a great showman, is the emotion through which the people connect to power."
Like many caudillos, Mr. Chávez has built a cult of personality, and dominates the country's airwaves, speaking on television and radio for hours at a time. His visage is plastered on billboards across the country.
Polls show other Chávez supporters are unknown or unliked by most Venezuelans, said Daniel Kerner, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group. "Chávez has made it difficult for anyone to rise to that level where they can be seen as a replacement."
Many analysts say that neither Mr. Jaua nor other top Chávez officials have any of the president's charisma, which is the glue the president has used to build a following.
Mr. Chávez's exit from the political scene would no doubt lead to a fierce succession struggle among leading members of his movement. Mr. Jaua, who analysts say comes from the most leftist branch of Mr. Chávez's movement and has close ties to Cuba, could be challenged by other powerful Chávez followers such as Diosdado Cabello, a former soldier now a powerful congressman who controls much of the political apparatus of Mr. Chávez's socialist party.
Rafael Ramírez, the head of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, the oil-rich's country piggy bank, is seen by analysts as another would-be contender for power, as is Mr. Chávez's brother Adan.
If Mr. Chávez were to be incapacitated, Cuba's crack security services might play a key role, analysts say. Mr. Chávez, who considers himself to be Fidel Castro's spiritual heir, provides Cuba with up to 100,000 barrels a day of cut-rate oil, making the island's economic survival largely dependent on Mr. Chávez's largess.
"The two Castro brothers, who were Catholics once, must be burning a lot of candles, praying for Chávez's survival," says Riordan Roett, head of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Venezuela's military would also play a crucial role. Much of the military has benefited from perks and money-making opportunities provided by Mr. Chávez. But there is resentment among some officers of Cuban influence in the armed forces, and fear that civilian militias armed by Mr. Chávez pose a threat to the institution and the country.
"These political vacuums are very dangerous. There will be a fight," Mr. Roett said. "There will be military moves. There will be moves among the Bolivarian factions."
Some analysts believe that Mr. Chávez, a master of the grand political gesture, is only biding his time to make a triumphal comeback from Cuba, as if from the dead. Such a return, they believe, could help overpower his political opposition.
The former tank commander-turned president still commands the loyalty of about half of his countrymen. But many Venezuelans have become frustrated by the country's surging criminal violence, its spluttering electrical system, as well as the highest inflation rate in the world.
One key date for Chávez watchers: July 5th, when Mr. Chávez is expected to host a spectacular and long-planned regional summit marking the 200th anniversary of Venezuelan independence.
But the longer time goes on without specific news on Mr. Chávez's situation, the more anxiety grows. "I'm hearing so many rumors now, I don't know what to believe," said Manuel Acosta, a 47-year-old taxi driver.
"Of course you don't want to wish ill upon anyone but if there is a change in the leaders, we can hope that things will start to change for the better."

Corrections & Amplifications
Speculation coming from Cuba and Venezuela has focused on the possibility that Mr. Chávez has prostate cancer, and has had his prostate removed. An earlier version of this article misspelled the word as prostrate.
Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Chávez Illness Sparks Succession Talk -

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