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?Fernando Llano/AP 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 temporarily 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.

Toro said that sympathy for Chávez and recent electoral triumphs by chavistas in other elections across the country indicate that a chavista candidate, such as Maduro himself, would be very likely to win presidential elections if they took place sooner, rather than later. Therefore, the government has an incentive to call for elections quickly.

"I don't understand the realpolitik of what they're doing," Toro said of recent decisions by Venezuelan officials to delay new elections, and place Maduro as acting president. "The one explanation I imagine is that they're scared that Chávez somehow comes back, and boils them alive for having moved to take over power before he was properly dead."

George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, believes that the decision by Venezuelan officials to keep Chávez in power, despite his frail state of health, could suggest that members of Chávez's inner circle know something about the situation that the rest of the world doesn't.

"If Maduro were to run in a snap election now he would win," said Ciccariello-Maher, who is about to publish a book on the rise of socialism in Venezuela. "The fact that they're not making that move, [calling for elections]… suggests at least that Chávez is potentially in a situation to recover."

Ciccariello-Maher said that the current situation, in which Maduro is ruling in the name of Chávez, could last for a couple of months at most.

"If they get to something like four, five, six months, the chorus from the opposition is just going to become more and more powerful that it's time to resolve this question of succession once and for all," Ciccariello-Maher said. "If they waited a year or two years they would be losing sympathy, and if it were clear that chavez were not governing the whole time, they would be losing the upper hand that they have now."

Venezuela currently faces serious economic problems, including food shortages and the very real prospect of currency devaluation, as the government attempts to plug a massive deficit that is worth 18 percent of the country's GDP. U.S. dollars are currently trading in Venezuela's black market at four times more than the official rate, and dollars sold at the official rate are extremely limited. This means that imports can become scandalously expensive for industrialists and retail companies that do not have the right connections to get dollars at the official rate.

Ciccariello-Maher and Toro agree that these are issues that tarnish Chávez's caretaker government. If months pass by before the government calls for new elections, and these problems continue, they could affect Maduro's popularity and benefit the opposition.

But there could be another reason why the Venezuelan government is staying away from new elections, Toro said.

"The government knows this kind of thing drives the opposition crazy… part of the attraction from their point of view might be simply driving us up a wall," added Toro, who openly identifies with the Venezuelan opposition.

Since it started to become evident that Chávez was not going to be sworn in on January 10, Venezuela's opposition has pushed for new elections, or for the creation of an independent medical committee to provide more information on Chávez's health and determine whether he is fit to rule the country.

Last week, its leaders vehemently rejected the National Assembly's decision to give Chávez an unlimited leave of absence and on Twitter, some radical sympathizers of the opposition called for a "national strike" in order to protest the lack of information on Chávez's health and the National Assembly's decision to give him an unlimited leave of absence.

But a national strike would be unpopular with the millions of Venezuelans who sympathize with Chávez and his health condition. Toro, along with opposition leaders like the former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, say that by not providing information about Chávez's health and delaying elections, the government is "laying a trap" for the opposition. They say the lack of information could spur more extreme reactions from some Chávez opponents, further polarizing Venezuela's political landscape.

Of course, it could also be possible that Chávez is slowly recovering from cancer, and that he has real prospects of once again returning to the Venezuelan presidency, as communication minister Ernesto Villegas suggested in a statement issued on Sunday.

But information on Chávez's health has been vague so far. Venezuelans have no details about his prognosis, no information on exactly what type of cancer he's suffering from and no idea how long he could be in bed for, exercising his presidential mandate from a Cuban hospital.

A scenario where Maduro rules in Chávez's name for months and even makes important decisions on his behalf, therefore, is not completely out of the question.

Eric Farnsworth from the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, a Washington D.C. think tank, believes that Venezuelan democracy loses out if its government is not clear about Chávez's health.

"If they don't tell the status of the president, it's awfully difficult for there to be a credible election, because no one can prepare for an election, if you don't know when it's going to be," Farnsworth said. "This is another way to game the system in Venezuela to overtly favor one side over the other, and that's completely what's going on here."