With Chávez Absent, Things Get Orwellian in Venezuela

PHOTO: Venezuela is currently governed by Hugo Chavez, a man who has not appeared in public for more than a month because of his delicate health condition. VP Nicolas Maduro is running things on his behalf, but, how long can this arrangement last?

Imagine the following script: A wildly popular leader of a tropical country wins an election and then heads to a foreign country for cancer treatment. He fails to utter a word in public for over a month as he fights to recover from a surgical procedure, and misses the inauguration for his fourth consecutive term in office.

In the meantime, one of his most loyal aides takes over the country, ruling on behalf of the dear leader. He starts to make decisions for the leader, like cutting some social programs and devaluing the country's currency to pay for its bloated debt.

Day after day passes without anyone hearing from the leader, as his most loyal aid continues to make decisions in his name. Those who ask for proof that the leader is actually alive face threats and repression from the state. They are accused of inciting social discord and disrespecting the leader's right to medical privacy.

This could turn out to be a decent book plot. Throw some talking pigs in there, a hard working horse and winged creatures, and we could have a sequel to George Orwell's "Animal Farm" on our hands.

Sadly, this is actually what things could start to look like in Venezuela, a nation with serious economic problems and a lot of oil, and whose president has not uttered a word in public for the past 34 days.

Before heading to Cuba for his fourth cancer surgery in 18 months, President Chávez warned his country that he may not emerge victorious from this battle. He asked his followers to vote for Vice President Nicolás Maduro, if he could not resume his duties as president.

But after Chávez failed to be sworn into office on January 10, as scheduled by Venezuela's constitution, his supporters in the National Assembly chose to interpret the law in ways that guaranteed a power vacuum in the tropical country. Instead of implementing a clause in Venezuela's constitution that calls for new elections to take place if the elected president cannot be sworn in, they chose to give Chávez some extra time to "recover" from cancer surgery.

The National Assembly awarded Chávez an indefinite leave of absence, only saying that he can be sworn into office at "a later date" once he "overcomes" his current circumstances. That wasn't the only option for the assembly: The body also could have chosen to create an independent medical commission that would verify if Chávez is able to resume his presidential duties.

In the meantime, Vice President Maduro is in charge. With the presidential inauguration postponed indefinitely, he organized a massive rally in support of Chávez last week. He hasn't, however, taken any crucial decisions on behalf of the president -- so far.

Maduro and his peers argue that in October's presidential election the majority of the Venezuelan people voted for Chávez, so he must be allowed all the time that is necessary to recover.

But how long can Venezuela have an absent head of state? And how long before Maduro, who was appointed to his post by Chávez, but not elected at the ballot box, starts to make serious decisions on behalf of El Comandante?

It's very difficult to tell, as Maduro's tenure also depends on the outcome of Chávez's opaque health condition. But Venezuelan blogger Francisco Toro speculates that the country's state of political limbo will only last for weeks, not months, before a new election is called.

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