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By: Dan Hellinger, Webster University
President Hugo Chávez announced on December 8 that his cancer had returned and that he would return to Cuba for another operation. He signed papers ratifying the authorization of his absence from the country and spoke somberly about the possibility that he would not survive this third operation. While he expressed optimism that the operation would successful, he also referred to the possibility of a “miracle” as he kissed a crucifix that he carries in his pocket. The operation took place Tuesday, December 11th.
Chavez had not been seen in public since November 15. He had traveled to Cuba on November 28 for more treatment related to his previous cancer operations. He had been enthusiastic about attending a trade summit in Brazil on Friday, December 7, but then announced from Cuba that he would not attend for health reasons. He returned to Venezuela to make his address, in which he revealed that doctors had wanted him to have the operation immediately.
Even before his dramatic televised address, Chávez’s absence had set off the usual speculation about his health. Citi-Corp was especially offensive in advising its investors, “Chavez Death Watch Good for Venezuelan Bonds.” Still, Chávez’s absence from the country ahead of important regional elections, scheduled to occur on December 16th, set off concern among allies inside and outside the county.
Many news reports said that Chávez had designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro to be his successor. In reality, that happened earlier, when he named Maduro, formerly foreign minister (2006-2012), to his current position shortly after the October presidential election. Chavez did call upon his followers to unite behind Maduro should he die or have to leave office.
The importance of his endorsement lay more in attempting to curtail divisions within his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The constitution provides that new elections would have to be called within 30 days should Chávez resign or be incapacitated.
This places an almost impossible burden for either the pro-government forces or the opposition to choose a candidate through an internal process. With the PSUV nominee a virtual certainty should a new election be necessary, the question now turns on whether the opposition could unite around Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October, or some other candidate immediately.
The National Assembly authorization for the president’s absence lasts for 90 days and can be renewed.
December Elections for Governor
Chávez’s announcement came only one week before Venezuelans go to the polls to select governors and representatives to electoral councils in 23 states (map). Also at stake are legislative councils in each state. Municipal elections are supposed to follow in April 2013, though they likely will be postponed for several weeks.
The following analysis was prepared a few days before Chávez’s announcement. Certainly this new factor involving Chávez’s health introduces an extra element of uncertainty to any analysis.
Before his latest operation, these elections might have been a better measure than the recent presidential election for registering the current balance of power between the opposition and Chavismo – that is, the degree to which voters support or disapprove of the quality of governance and the overall direction that President Chávez would like to take the country in the next six years.
The president personally hand-picked the candidates and put a number of his closest and best-known allies up against prominent leaders of the opposition in various states. The opposition is not as unified as it was in the presidential election, but in most states the election boils down to the Chavista candidate and that of the coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which chose its candidates via a primary last February.
The most notable and important race is in Miranda State, which includes a significant part of the Caracas metropolitan area. There, Henrique Capriles, who gave up his governorship of the state to run against Chávez in the October 7 presidential election, seeks to return to office against Elías Jaua, a former vice president. Several similar high stakes contests will occur in Zulia, the most populous state containing the second largest city of Maracaibo, and the important states of Aragua, Lara, and Carabobo.
The opposition holds only 7 of 23 states currently, but several of these are among the most populated. The PSUV has shown weakness and division in various states, including the eastern state of Bolivar, home to the heavy industrial zone of Ciudad Guayana. There, the MUD candidate is Andrés Velásquez, who led a mass union democratization movement in the region in the 1980s before entering politics representing the Causa R political party. The region has been the scene of an intense and sometimes violent labor conflict, not just between the opposition and Chavismo, but within the ranks of the latter.
The presidential elections demonstrated the considerable mobilization capacity of the PSUV. There is little doubt that the party benefits from the resources of government, most notably in terms of vehicle use, propaganda, targeted social programs, etc. Still, the opposition has the support of a large majority of the private media.
In addition to the enormous weight that must be given to Chávez’s recent announcement, there are several factors that, though difficult to gauge, might otherwise influence the outcome:
- In the old “Punto Fijo” system dominated by two parties, the one in opposition often benefitted from a “voto castigo” (punishment vote) against poor governance. This could cut either way depending on who holds the governorship in each state, but PSUV candidates, especially since they were designated from above, may be more vulnerable if some voters who supported Chávez want to use these elections to send a message.
- Have opposition voters been demoralized or energized by the recent presidential election?
- How will the absence of Chávez from the campaign trail affect the mobilization capacity of the PSUV? Will grassroots activists who must do the door to door work of getting voters to the polls work as hard, given disappointment in the top-down selection process?
Most polls have been showing PSUV candidates running even or slightly ahead of the opposition in key races. In Miranda, the polls are mixed, but Capriles, who replaced MUD’s primary winner after losing the presidential contest, has a fight on his hands. In the central state of Carabobo, the opposition candidate, Henrique Salas Feo, who was Chávez’s opponent in the 1998 election, looks vulnerable to defeat. In another central state, Lara, the PSUV is trying to defeat a candidate, Henrí Falcón, who was once a stand-out figure for the Chávez government as governor of the state.
An intriguing contest is brewing in the Andean state of Trujillo, along the border with Colombia. Hugo Cabezas, the incumbent PSUV candidate, was designated by Chávez as the party’s candidate for December. The nomination generated widespread protest from grassroots activists. He stood down and was replaced on the ballot by former Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva, who was replaced by Diego Molero on December 8. No region of Venezuela has been more affected by paramilitary activities and organized crime than border towns in Trujillo, so the results may indicate whether Venezuelans there have confidence in the central government to restore security.
Despite having chosen candidates in a primary, the opposition has suffered some defections in the past month, most prominently, four of its members of the National Assembly. Francisco Arias Cardénas is trying to regain the governorship of Zulia, but this time as a PSUV candidate. The governorship of the state has been long held by the opposition, including during the five years Cardénas was governor before giving it up to run against Chávez in the 2000 presidential elections.
While the National Electoral Council (CNE) is generally credited with running transparent balloting, its record on impartial enforcement of campaign regulations is open to question. For example, in late October, the National Electoral Council (CNE) permitted six PSUV candidates to change their voting districts well after the April deadline. The six are among candidates picked by Chávez. The CNE permitted 108 voters, most linked to these candidates, to change their registration addresses. One of the pro-government representatives on the board (four of whose five members are pro-Chávez) said the changes had precedent and were “exceptional.”
Can Caracas and Washington Re-set Relations?
Most pundits seem to think that Venezuela-U.S. relations are stuck in a purgatory between normal diplomatic relations and a full break. Currently, we have relations, but not ambassadors. That situation goes back to 2010 when President Obama nominated career diplomat Larry Palmer to be the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. In written responses to Senator Richard Lugar, Palmer made several statements about political conditions in Venezuela, including remarks alleging “low morale” in the Venezuelan military.
An objective observer should concede that no government, including the U.S., would accept such blatant claims and statements that constitute an intrusion into the country’s internal affairs. Americas Quarterly, in an article hardly friendly to President Chávez, acknowledged that the Venezuelan president could not be expected to acquiesce to Palmer’s nomination. When Chávez announced he would not accept Palmer, Washington expelled Venezuela’s ambassador Bernardo Alvarez (now ambassador to Spain).
As Americas Quarterly summarized the U.S. situation, “Our domestic debate over Venezuela generally falls into two camps: engagement and confrontation. There are, of course, shades of gray and nuances between the two sides-though such voices are so often overpowered by the more extreme views.”
That remains true today, but I believe that President Obama himself leans toward engagement. A ranking Venezuelan diplomat told me that Washington and Caracas almost reached a deal last year to restore ambassadors, but it was scuttled when the right wing in the U.S. Congress got wind of the deal.
Now that Obama has been re-elected and the Senate is more firmly in Democratic hands, it is possible that sometime in 2013, barring a major flare-up between the two countries, we’ll see another attempt by Obama to restore ambassadors — though certainly not until the matter of who will be the next U.S. Secretary of State is settled.
It doesn’t hurt at all that Florida Rep. Connie Mack got smacked down in a key Senate race. Mack, in his position as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs, has been an intractable advocate of confrontation. He lost to incumbent Senator Bill Nelson. On the other hand, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and fiercely anti-Castro and anti-Chávez, is in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should the current chair, John Kerry, become Secretary of State.
Menendez has a right hand man on Cuba and Venezuela issues in Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is the ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of Foreign Relations.
Indigenous Rights Issues become Sharper in Venezuela
On November 7, 60 members of the Yukpa indigenous group from the Sierra de Perijá in Venezuela’s western state of Zulia protested the killings of several leaders defending grants of land given to them by the government earlier this year. Ranchers in the area claim that the government has not paid them promised compensation. Leaders attribute responsibility for the killings to paramilitary groups, including Colombian death squads hired by the ranchers. However, at least one person was killed when government forces dislodged occupiers of a ranch.
Another conflict has been shaping up in the southeast where the government’s proposed new mining law has attracted criticism from some sectors of the Yanomami peoples. The Yanomami have long protested incursions by illegal, small scale miners from Brazil, but the new law, some claim, would open the region to large scale mining. Among those opposed is Shaman Davi Kopenawa, who opposes all mining and gave his reasons on a video posted by Survival International.
The main indigenous demand is implementation of existing legislation guaranteeing indigenous rights, which conflicts with the government’s reliance on extractive industries. The government now faces demands that it keep faith with this legislation even as it relies upon revenues from oil, gas and mining for its social programs.