Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Chavez Returns Amidst Continuing Uncertainty

CARACAS, Jul 4 2011 (IPS) - The pieces on Venezuela’s political chessboard have shifted as a result of President Hugo Chávez’s illness and convalescence in Cuba. His surprise return to Venezuela Monday has opened questions as to how the game will be played in future.

In the beginning, Adán

The lack of a recognised "number two" in the Chavista hierarchy left Vice President Jaua, a 41-year-old sociologist, formally in charge of coordinating Chávez's team of advisers, while others, like Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, shuttled back and forth to Havana.

But in the last few days, two figures who were keeping a low profile in the east and southwest of the country, lawmaker Diosdado Cabello - a retired lieutenant and former vice president and infrastructure minister - and the governor of the state of Barinas, Adán Chávez, the president's brother, have emerged into the limelight.

Cabello, who seconded Chávez in the 1992 failed military coup attempt, is said to exert great influence on officers presently in command of the army's main units, due to their shared generation and experiences. Adán Chávez, Hugo's 58-year-old older brother, has been the president's ideological and political mentor from his youth, according to the writings of the late historian Alberto Garrido.

When legendary communist guerrilla Douglas Bravo created the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (PRV) in the 1970s, Adán Chávez, then a physics student at the Universidad de Los Andes, joined the group and later recruited his brother Hugo, then a young sublieutenant, to infiltrate the army.

Laconic in speech and averse to publicity, unlike his brother the president, Adán Chávez has been minister of the presidency, education minister, and governor of Barinas in the southwestern plains, the Chávez family home state.

To lay to rest any doubts about his radical activism, at a PSUV rally in late June Adán Chávez quoted from the works of Ernesto "Che" Guevara about methods of gaining and maintaining power. According to Guevara, "it would be unforgivable to limit oneself only to electoral means, and not look at other methods of struggle, including armed struggle."

If Chávez's ill-health leads to some kind of collective leadership of the "process", his brother Adán could be a sort of guardian of revolutionary or radical purity in party and government policies, because constitutionally, as a close relative, he cannot be appointed, for example, vice president and successor to Hugo.

“I’m here, happy to be home, and I will be with you from my command post in the heart of Caracas and Venezuela. Although of course, I never left, I never went away, I am always with you,” Chávez said on state television as soon as his plane landed.

In a Jun. 30 speech broadcast from Havana after weeks with no official word and widespread rumours and uncertainty over his state of health, the 56-year-old president acknowledged that he had been convalescing since Jun. 11 from surgery for a pelvic abscess in which a cancerous tumour was removed.

“This is the start of my return. I have gone back to the routine of a cadet, with strict timetables, medical check-ups and rehabilitation,” he said. Chávez was referring to his army career, in which he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1992, when he led a failed coup d’état.

He announced he might not attend the Jul.5 military parade and other ceremonies to commemorate Venezuela’s 200th anniversary of independence.

During the four weeks he spent in Cuba, in spite of undergoing two operations, Chávez and his advisers insisted that he was kept up-to-date on government affairs, exercising full presidential powers. During this period, Vice President Elías Jaua rejected calls by the opposition for him to temporarily replace the president.

The vice president, who is appointed, not elected, in Venezuela, hinted that Chávez would run again for the presidency in 2012, saying “this return is the start of battles and future victories we will have as a people, with him (Chávez) as leader.”

To have delegated executive power to the vice president, even for a few days, would have been “another blow for Chávez’s followers, at least one-third of the electorate, who were already crushed by the loneliness caused by their leader’s physical breakdown,” analyst Oscar Schémel, head of the polling firm Hinterlaces, told IPS.

“Venezuela’s political process since 1999 has been headed by a leader who inspires devotion that is more religious than political, and is perceived as someone who loves the poor and wants what is good for the people,” said Schémel.

“To his grassroots followers, their leader is everything, and without him they fear the loss of what they have gained or are about to gain,” he added.

From the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) lowliest activist to leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba, everyone recognises that Chávez is essential for the evolution of the “Bolivarian revolution”, as he calls the process of change ushered in since he took office in 1999, into “21st century socialism.”

As an expression of that continuity, Chávez has already launched his candidacy for the elections due in the second half of 2012, when a president will be chosen for the next six-year term, 2013-2019.

Carlos Romero, a professor of doctoral students in political science at the Central University, told IPS: “these days, uncertainty and caution are the watchwords, in view of at least three scenarios for the Venezuelan electoral panorama.”

The first is for the president to stand as a candidate, as his opponents had been expecting until a month ago; the second is for Chávez to attempt to become a candidate, but fail; and the third is for him to physically be unable to run for reelection

In the third scenario, “emphasising the continuity of Chávez’s legacy will be vital in governing party propaganda,” Schémel predicted.

Luis León, head of the Datanalysis polling firm, told IPS that the opposition “should not relax in the present circumstances; on the contrary, it should prepare itself for a tough battle, and present a united front and real proposals that are attractive to voters.”

Alternatives to Chávez “can no longer present themselves simply as the opposition, but must appeal to national unity and human values, with an emphasis on convincing social policies,” Schémel said.

In the “hand-to-hand” combat between candidates, political scientists like José Vicente Carrasquero highlighted to IPS “the relative disadvantage faced by a Chávez who is convalescent or threatened by health problems, compared with a political rival who will probably be much younger.”

The opposition Democratic Unity Coalition will meet to select their candidate in primaries scheduled for early 2012. The presidential hopefuls with the greatest chances are governor Henrique Capriles of the central state of Miranda, Pablo Pérez, the governor of the western state of Zulia, and Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a Caracas municipality, although he is temporarily disqualified because of corruption. All three politicians are barely 40 years old.

In his favour, Chávez has not only massive recognition by the population, but also the backing of the majority PSUV and the tacit support of the entire state structure.

The unknown variable in the short term is whether his illness, convalescence and recovery will be used to forge a new propaganda tool to rebuild the president’s popularity, which according to some polls has been eroded by 12 years in power, or whether they will block his prospects of electoral victory.

If the latter is the case, the PSUV would need to select a new candidate, a move for which the party is unprepared as there is no heir-apparent who could step into Chávez’s shoes.

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