Could 2013 signal the demise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? The socialist leader seems to be fighting for his life in a Cuban hospital bed, with varying reports circulating online about the state of his health.
His possible death, or the inability to be sworn in for his fourth term in office on January 10, could trigger a bizarre battle for succession within Chavismo. According to some observers, Vice President Nicolas Maduro and former military man, and National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, might clash as the country prepares for post-Chavez elections.
However, Venezuelan government officials claim there is unity within the ranks of the socialist revolution, with Cabello expressing on several occasions that he will stand by Chavez' orders, who has called on Venezuelans to vote for Maduro, if he cannot stay on as president.
The latest report from Spanish newspaper ABC published on Tuesday claims that Chavez is in an induced coma, on life support and that his aides and family members are planning a date in which to disconnect him from the machines that are keeping him alive. This information has been confirmed on Twitter by Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor that says he gets information leaked from Chavez´s medical staff. Marquina´s information is not official and he does not reveal his sources. But last week he correctly announced that Chavez had a respiratory infection that arose from post-surgery complications, one day before the Venezuelan government provided the same information on national TV. This suggests that Marquina may have some personal insight.
The Venezuelan government, however, maintains a more positive outlook on Chavez´s prospects.
On Tuesday Vice President Maduro said in a TV interview that Chavez´s condition is "delicate" but that he is conscious, aware of his health condition, and conserves "the same (emotional) strength as always." Although last week he also acknowledged on a nationally televised broadcast that Chavez was in a delicate state of health and that his recovery was "not exempt from risks." Some observers have taken this as a sign that Maduro is trying to prepare the Venezuelan population for news of Chavez´s death.
Chavez underwent cancer surgery last month for the fourth time in 18 months. He has not appeared in public since he headed to Cuba for treatment on December 9.
Meanwhile the web is rife with analysis of what could happen if Chavez fails to show up to the inauguration of his fourth term as President of Venezuela, which is scheduled for January 10.
So how will this play out? There are a few possible scenarios.
Venezuelan politics blog Caracas Chronicles suggests that January 5 will be the next big date in Venezuela´s complicated transition process because this is when the National Assembly meets to formally pick its next president. According to Venezuela´s constitution, the president of the National Assembly must act as the country´s leader if Chavez cannot be sworn into office on January 10, and until new elections are held.
The most likely figure to take on this role is Diosdado Cabello, who is the current president of the National Assembly. Cabello has close ties to the military and was one of the officers who participated in Chavez´s 1992 coup attempt against then President Carlos Andres Perez.
However, Caracas Chronicles suggests that some sectors within Chavismo might propose other candidates for the National Assembly job, including Blanca Eekhout, a congresswoman for Venezuela´s socialist party.
"If Cabello is dumped for someone else, this would point to Maduro wanting to consolidate power and not trust his candidacy to Cabello, who would control the purse-strings during the transition. It would suggest tensions within chavismo are high, " Caracas Chronicles writes.
However, a scenario where the president of the National Assembly takes the reins of the country may not happen so soon.
A clause in the Venezuelan constitution says that government leaders can ask for Chavez´s inauguration to be postponed for up to 90 days, with Vice President Maduro acting as the country´s president during that period of time. Government officials might choose to implement this clause as they wait for Chavez´s health situation to play out.
Another option is that Venezuela´s supreme court might choose to travel to Cuba to swear Chavez in as President of Venezuela as he lies on his hospital bed. Chavez would then immediately transfer presidential powers to Maduro, who has already been granted some economic powers, like permission to nationalize companies and make budget decisions.
This possibility however, has come under intense scrutiny from opposition lawyers who claim that it is unconstitutional to swear in a president in a foreign land.
Whatever happens, new elections would have to take place within 30 days, if Chavez dies. And as The Wall Street Journal points out, the winner of these elections will have to manage a country with a massive fiscal deficit, and will possibly have to undertake unpopular measures, such as devaluating the country´s currency so that the government can pay its debts, and enforce budget cuts on Chavez´s popular social programs.
This gloomy economic outlook leads some analysts to speculate that Diosdado Cabello will not be very interested in vying for the country´s presidency for now, leaving it up to Maduro, or the opposition´s presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, to undertake the unpopular job of fixing the country´s economy.
"The (presidency) is a poisoned chalice," Francisco Toro, a prominent Venezuelan blogger, said via a recent Gchat conversation.
"If I'm Cabello, I'm thanking my lucky stars Chávez didn't leave me in charge of passing the paquetazo (economic reform package) that's coming…His play comes in the second half of 2013 or in 2014, when Maduro (or Capriles) proves totally unable to deal with the wave of popular discontent that flows from emergency fiscal measures, and Cabello is in a prime position to slam him for betraying the legacy of the revolution and passes himself off as the real heir to the chavista legacy," Toro wrote onCaracas Chronicles.