Update, 5PM: Venezuela’s vice president has announced that Hugo Chávez is dead.
Cancer-stricken Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was returned secretly to Cuba last Friday for urgent medical attention, according to an article authored by Washington-based journalist Emily Blasco, published today by the conservative Spanish newspaper, ABC. If it is true that Chávez was transported back to Havana without having taken the oath of office, it is a clear sign that nationalist elements within chavismo have stymied Cuban plans for installing a compliant successor.
A bruising succession struggle within the ruling party and great instability may be in Venezuela’s immediate future.
Just two weeks ago, the Cubans who have controlled Chávez’s medical treatment for two years moved the ailing leader back to Venezuela just so he could take the oath of office. Chávez had been in Cuba and could not be sworn in to a new term that commenced on January 10; having him take the oath on Venezuelan soil would make his vice president (and Havana favorite), Nicolas Maduro, his lawful successor.
The fact that some sort of passable ceremony could not be arranged while Chávez was back in Venezuela confirms that he is in woeful physical condition. It also suggests that chavistas who disapprove of Havana’s cynical manipulation of their dying leader refused to go along with such a spectacle.
Havana’s biggest headache is Diosdado Cabello, a military veteran and long-time chavista leader. As president of the national assembly, he will become acting president if Chávez dies without being sworn in. Cabello will be responsible for managing the country and presiding over a special election to choose a new president. Late last year, Chávez named Maduro to be the chavista standard bearer in a future election. But with Chávez out of the picture, all bets are off.
In the last several days, Maduro has begun to strike back – perhaps to distract the public from reports that the regime is lying about Chávez’s health and whereabouts. Today, he suggested that Chávez may have been poisoned, and he expelled a US military officer whom he accused of promoting destabilization in the Venezuelan military. Maduro’s accusation is a clumsy attempt to generate popular suspicion about the loyalty of the army so that his Cuban handlers can begin to take reprisals against military officers who are blocking Havana’s succession plan.
By challenging the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, Maduro and Havana may be starting a fight they cannot win.
The long knives are out in Caracas.