Venezuela After Hugo Chavez: What's Next?

PHOTO: Supporters of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez chant slogans outside the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 5, 2013.
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As Venezuela rose this morning, hours before Hugo Chavez was supposed to be sworn in for his third term as president, there was as much evidence that the father of the nation's "Bolivarian Revolution" was alive as that he was dead.

Chavez, 58, has not been seen or heard from since leaving the country for Cuba a month ago today. Surgeons at Havana's Cimeq hospital operated on him the next day for at least the third time in 18 months, a span in which he had also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment for a mysterious cancer than began in his pelvic region.

Now, his supporters will fill the streets for an unofficial inauguration in absentia, a rally to affirm Chavez as their leader even as his ruling legacy is thrown into doubt by illness and a dubious reading of Venezuelan law.

Young Chavez Supporters Try to Imagine Life Without Him

The letter from Havana asking that the official ceremonies be delayed was not signed by Chavez, but by his vice president and would-be successor, Nicolas Maduro. In Caracas, another top lieutenant of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, with the backing of the National Assembly, accepted the request and moved to put off the occasion indefinitely.

Their decision defied Articles 231, 233 and 234 of the Venezuelan constitution, which require the president be sworn in on Jan. 10 -- if not before legislators, then in the presence of the Supreme Court -- unless he is declared incapacitated or "absent."

In those cases, the vice president or leader of the National Assembly would temporarily fill the position and the clock would start counting down to new elections. The current Supreme Court, which is stocked with Chavez appointees, has rejected appeals to intervene.

"Right now, we cannot say when, how or where the president will be sworn in," Supreme Court Chief Judge Luisa Morales said at a news conference Wednesday, neatly summing up the state of play right now in Caracas.

More Surgery for Hugo Chavez

With Chavez gone, confusion reigns and a question threatens to eat up the firmament: What's next?

"Chavismo sin Chávez no existe," (Chavismo without Chavez does not exist) Elias Jaua, his former vice president, said a year ago when concerns about the president's health cast a pall on his re-election campaign. Jaua also stated that "no one in the ranks of the revolution" had ever discussed the possibility of succession.

Their actions in the past 48 hours would indicate that Jaua was not parrying or keeping a hard line, but that there is, indeed, no real plan in place for when -- and when is the question -- Chavez dies.

The serious opposition, meanwhile, has remained cautious even as it grows increasingly apparent that Chavez is unlikely to return to Venezuela as its president. Publicly, their leaders have urged calm and sought to settle the recent disputes through the legal channels created by the Chavista constitution. But unless they have been ignoring the newspapers for the past month, it must be posturing. On Dec. 23, less than two weeks after Chavez's last operation, Cabello, 49, staked out the government's position in stark terms.

"January 10 is a day like any other," he said at the inauguration of a United Socialist Party governor. "If President Chavez is not here, it is [the same]. This we will defend, knee to the ground, rifles on shoulders, bayonets drawn. ... Forget about that date, unless the president decides it. Get off that cloud."

But the Chavistas cannot wait for Chavez forever. Doubt is filling the vacuum created by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's refusal to release any substantial information about his medical condition. (One opposition parliamentarian asked whether the letter from Havana was written by Cuban leader Raul Castro.)

From Vice President Maduro, 50, who has not left Chavez's side in Cuba, there have only been scattered statements meant to assure the public that the president is recovering, even if the situation remains "delicate." A brother-in-law has tweeted updates.

And there are economic difficulties waiting up the road. Despite sitting on one of the world's healthiest oil reserves, Venezuela is having trouble financing Chavista social programs. The Venezuelan bolivar is expected to be devalued in the coming months, a decision likely to mean at least a short-term struggle with inflation.

For now, though, the party's grip on power, along with its ability to run a strong campaign, is strong enough. In an ironic turn, the Chavistas best chance at prolonging "the revolution" sin Chavez is to ditch Chavez.

All they would have to do is nothing at all. Barring an extrajudicial power grab, they will be faced in weeks or months with new elections and, in all likelihood, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40.

The governor of Miranda, the second largest state in Venezuela, Capriles leads the Justice First party. He lost to Chavez in the Oct. 7 election, 55-44 percent. Both Jaua and Cabello have run and lost governor's races against Capriles, Cabello failing to unseat him in a December governor's race, but Maduro, the bus driver turned union leader, is the heir.

"If Maduro loses [an election to an opposition candidate], that is where the commotion takes place," Diana Villiers Negroponte, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News. "That is where the militia will contest the result. That is when you will head to Caracas with cameras."

The Venezuelan ruling class established under Chavez has "commercial and financial interests to protect," she said. "You cannot tell how they will act."

But even as these ties remain strong, with each day that passes, the memory of Chavez is diminished. And as he withers, both in the flesh and the Venezuelan body politic, so, too, does the likelihood that Maduro or Cabello can win a fair election.

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