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Global Geopolitics

Venezuela’s Neighbours Walking on Eggshells

CARACAS, Jan 24 2013 (IPS) - Governments of countries in the Americas are relying on the passage of time and a relatively peaceful political atmosphere to sort out the unprecedented institutional situation in Venezuela, whose ailing president Hugo Chávez is out of the country, while the executive team tasked with carrying out his former mandate continues in office.

The attitude of these states apparently explains their prompt acceptance of the premise that Chávez’s government is a continuation of his previous term of office, which has been backed by a Supreme Court decision. However, some countries have hinted that it would be better if new elections were called to legitimise the new order.

“Criticisms from the opposition in Venezuela and from a large number of legal experts, contending that the steps taken are contrary to the constitution, have not been echoed by any country,” Carlos Romero, a professor of postgraduate studies in political science and international relations at several Venezuelan universities, told IPS.

Elsa Cardozo, head of the School of Liberal Studies at the Metropolitan University in Caracas, held similar views. The countries of the hemisphere “are witnessing a situation that is obviously not normal, but they prefer to wait and let time pass, while saying that it is not up to them to interpret the Venezuelan constitution,” she told IPS.

The first aspect of the situation, said Cardozo, is that the re-elected president is seriously ill and is undergoing treatment for cancer. He is convalescing in Havana from his fourth surgery since June 2011.

Chávez was re-elected in October to his fourth term of office, and was due to be sworn in on Jan. 10. Instead, Nicolás Maduro, the vice president (who, in Venezuela, is appointed by the president rather than elected by popular vote), inaugurated the six-year term with the tacit blessing of the Supreme Court, accompanied by the previous cabinet of ministers, while the single-chamber legislature declined to declare the president absent.

If the legislature had declared the president absent, the speaker of the Venezuelan parliament, Diosdado Cabello, would have taken over as interim president and new presidential elections would have been called immediately.

In contrast, according to the ruling of the Supreme Court and the view of parliament, there is no deadline for Chávez’s swearing-in as president for the 2013-2019 term.

Cardozo said, “Foreign countries do not buy the idea that there is no deadline. Spokespersons from Brazil, Colombia and the United States have said that as soon as advisable, if President Chávez is unable to return to his post, elections should be called.”

In her view, the United States particularly will maintain “a low profile” with respect to Venezuela, because “it clearly understands that for a number of (reasons), its words could well be counterproductive.”

Romero agrees with Cardozo that “with the start of new government terms in the United States and Venezuela”, Washington’s priorities are aimed rather at reestablishing diplomatic relations at ambassador level and “a climate of normality, so that U.S. capital can participate in the oil industry and the countries can work together against drug trafficking.”

As for Latin America and the Caribbean, the experts concur that there is no uniform position with respect to the situation in Venezuela.

Romero divides countries into three groups. The first is made up of the closest political allies, like Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay “that explicitly support continuity and the consolidation of Chávez’s policies, and believe there should be no going back on the changes effected so far.”

“A second group – the majority – whose most visible exponents are Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, do not necessarily support Chavist domestic and international policies, but they do not want any kind of disorder, nor for the president’s absence to cause political instability or military unrest,” he said.

Street protests against the government formula led by Maduro have been few and far between, mounted almost exclusively by groups of students, while armed forces commanders have stated that they will not only obey, but will also enforce, the decisions of parliament and the Supreme Court.

According to Romero, the third group is comprised of “countries that wash their hands” of the whole business. “They do not have marked affinity or common interests with the Chávez administration, but they prefer to keep quiet rather than act, and this group includes Guatemala, Panama, Mexico and Chile,” he said.

Attending a mass rally held Jan. 10 in front of the presidential palace, presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Desiré Delano Bouterse of Suriname and José Mujica of Uruguay, along with high-level representatives of Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti and St. Vincent and the Grenadines showed their support for the continuity of the mandate and for Maduro’s leadership.

Later on, messages acknowledging the Venezuelan government leadership formula arrived from all over the continent. The official line, without there ever having been an official medical bulletin about his state of health, is that Chávez, convalescing in Havana, continues “in the full exercise of his functions” as president, while his reinauguration for a new term of office is pending.

Meanwhile, Maduro is in practice the head of government, but although he receives recognition as such, he refuses to be called the acting or interim president.

A kind of collegial government is operating, with consultations and joint public appearances by Maduro, Cabello, Rafael Ramírez, president of the state oil company PDVSA, and Elías Jaua, foreign minister and former vice president.

Completing the political scenario, the leaders closest to Chávez, especially those in public office, travel continually to Havana where, according to their reports, they visit the ailing president, and also meet with historic Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his brother Cuban president Raúl Castro, and several ministers.

Among those who have travelled to Havana in order to gain first-hand information about the situation in Venezuela are Argentine president Cristina Fernández, Peruvian president Ollanta Humala, and Marco Aurélio García, the influential foreign policy adviser to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

Brazilian officials told the press that the Rousseff administration has suggested that Venezuelan leaders hold elections “as soon as possible” if Chávez dies or becomes incapable of carrying out his presidential functions.

On Jan. 17, Brazilian foreign minister Antonio Patriota said: “We trust the situation in Venezuela, whatever the outcome, will evolve according to the institutions with minimal shock, so that Venezuelan society can reorganise itself as quickly as possible.”

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín in Washington on Jan. 15, and they concluded that “a political transition of any kind needs to happen in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution and needs to be democratic”, according to the state department spokeswoman.

A few days later, Holguín came to Caracas for talks with Maduro and Jaua about joint programmes for the development of border areas, she said, and to wish Chávez a speedy recovery, but she did not refer to any “transition” in Venezuela.

Maduro and Jaua will be able to gauge regional perceptions of the Venezuelan situation more directly and privately when they attend the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the European Union-CELAC summit, to be held in Santiago de Chile Jan. 25-27.


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