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Chávez Names Civilian Heir for Sake of Unity

In Caracas, PSUV supporters pray for the health of Hugo Chávez. Credit: Raúl Limaco/IPS

CARACAS, Dec 10 2012 (IPS) - Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan vice president and foreign minister, has been announced by President Hugo Chávez as his political successor. Many analysts view this as a specific call for party unity, and a preference for a civilian over a former military leader.

For the first time the 58-year-old Chávez, who is facing his fourth surgery for cancer in Cuba, has designated a political successor, 20 years after he first came to public attention by leading a military uprising. Since then he has spent 14 years as president, and a year-and-a-half fighting cancer.

“It’s a nomination that make sense,” analyst José Vicente Carrasquero, a professor of postgraduate political science courses at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, told IPS. “Maduro understands Chávez and he has a great deal of experience; he was president of the legislature, then foreign minister for six years, and now he is the vice president.

“Chávez is choosing a civilian to leave in his place, distancing himself from the perception that his government is militaristic, a criticism that would have been made if he had named one of his supporters from within the armed forces,” he said.

Another political science professor, Gabriel Reyes, told IPS that Chávez’s entourage and the leadership of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are made up of several groups that are divided basically into two main sectors, civilian and military.

Among the retired members of the military, the most notable figure is Diosdado Cabello, who was a lieutenant in 1992 and second-in-command to Chávez, then commander of a parachute battalion, in his failed attempted coup. At present Cabello is vice president of the PSUV and president of the legislature.

When Chávez made his announcement to the country that his cancer had recurred and he would be having another operation in Cuba, he appeared on television flanked by Cabello and Maduro, a powerful symbol of unity, according to his supporters.

Chávez “must have calculated that, as they are both in positions of power, they would counterbalance each other,” Reyes said.

The 49-year-old Maduro was a young activist in the now defunct leftwing group Liga Socialista. He worked as a bus driver for the Caracas Metro, where he was a trade unionist, and later joined the movement created by Chávez to take part in the 1998 elections, in which the president first came to power.

Maduro also formed part of the 1999 constituent assembly that rewrote the country’s constitution; he presided the legislature; and in 2006 he was appointed foreign minister, a post he retained when Chávez designated him vice president two months ago (in Venezuela the vice president is appointed, not elected).

“If something happens that incapacitates me, Nicolás Maduro should not only serve out the period (2007-2013) as the constitution requires, but my firm opinion…irrevocable, absolute, total, is that in that scenario, which would require new presidential elections, you should elect Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela.

“I ask this of you from my heart,” Chávez said on national radio and television broadcasts on Saturday Dec. 8.

Chávez was reelected on Oct. 7 with 55 percent of the vote, for a six-year term that starts Jan. 10.

Henrique Capriles, who lost the elections with 44 percent of the vote, said along with most opposition leaders that new elections would be called soon if Chávez did not beat his illness.

“It should be quite clear that there is no succession in Venezuela. This is not Cuba, nor is it a monarchy where a king designates the next king. No, in Venezuela when a person steps down from a position, the last word always belongs to the people,” Capriles said.

Under the constitution, if the president elect cannot take office for any reason, new elections are to be called within 30 days of the start of the new term. In the meantime, the acting head of state will be the president of the single-chamber legislature, at present Cabello.

If an incumbent president dies or is incapacitated within the first four years of his or her term, new elections must also be called.

In this case it is the vice president who becomes acting president until the ballot takes place, as he or she also does if the presidency becomes vacant in the last two years of the six-year term.

The constitution gives the following reasons for the presidency becoming vacant: death, resignation, dismissal by a decision of the Supreme Court, physical or mental incapacity certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Court and approved by the legislature, desertion declared by the legislature, or revocation of mandate by a popular vote.

So far, parliament has only been called on to give its formal permission for Chávez to leave his post, and the country, for more than five days, for health reasons.

President Chávez’s health crisis, the countdown to the January inaugural ceremony and the announcement of his political heir have come on top of the upcoming elections for 23 state governors and regional legislatures, on Sunday Dec. 16.

Until now, analysts and pollsters assumed that Chavista candidates would win in the majority of districts, continuing the October PSUV victory, while the opposition vote would decline.

“But earlier surveys become irrelevant with the appearance of this new unforeseeable element. It will have an impact,” Luis Vicente León, head of the polling firm Datanálisis, told IPS.

According to León, “voter turnout may be higher. The president’s sympathisers may come out to vote in greater numbers if they perceive the revolution to be in danger, while the opposition, still in mourning because they thought Chávez was going to govern for another six years, will see their aspirations and hopes revived.”

Expressions of support for Chávez as well as good wishes for his health are already pouring in. On Sunday Dec. 9, the PSUV organised rallies in the main squares of cities and towns to pray for their leader. The presidents of neighbouring countries have also sent messages of solidarity.

The defence minister, admiral Diego Molero, sent a communiqué to Chávez saying that the armed forces “are loyal to his person, to the revolution and to the people. During his absence the soldiers will defend the socialist homeland with their lives.”

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