Q & A on Venezuelan Transition

David Smilde

Following are some baseline question and answers about the Venezuelan transition.

 1.  What happens next?

The Venezuelan government has declared seven days of mourning. The funeral is said to be scheduled for Friday the 8th. The Constitution says that a new election should be called within thirty days. This has generally been interpreted to mean in thirty days. One thing to watch for is if the government decides the election should be in ten or fifteen days instead of thirty. This would make sense from their perspective to take advantage of the wave of emotion and support for the government in the aftermath of Chávez’s death and a state funeral.

 2.  Who’s in charge now?

Vice President Nicolas Maduro will be interim President. It is not actually clear who should be in charge constitutionally. The 1999 Constitution says that if the president dies within the first four years of his mandate the Vice President will take over and call elections within thirty days. However it also says that if a president-elect dies before taking the oath of office the President of the National Assembly becomes interim President. On January 9 the Venezuelan Supreme Court argued that Chávez was a reelected president and that the oath of office was not necessary and could be postponed. Thus it is not entirely clear whether Chávez, when he died, was president elect or had already begun his new term but without the oath of office. The government clearly seems to be working on the latter interpretation. Some in the opposition are arguing that it should be AN President Diosdado Cabello and suggest that Maduro’s being interim President is a coup d’état.

 3.  What is the political dynamic heading toward elections?

Recent polling suggests that the voting blocks are lined up in roughly similar percentages as they were for the October presidential elections, with Maduro at 55% and Henrique Capriles Radonski at 45%.

 4.  Who are the candidates?

In December Chávez postponed urgent surgery to return to Venezuela to make absolutely clear that he wanted Nicolas Maduro to be his successor. Unless something dramatic happens with the pro-Chávez coalition, he will be the presidential candidate. Maduro began as a union activists, then rose to President of the National Assembly and served Chávez as Foreign Minister for six years. He is one of the leftists within the Chávez coalition. Despite his reputation as more conciliatory and as a negotiator, he is also strongly rhetorical and focuses on anti-imperialist ideology. During the past three months he has excoriated the opposition and denounced foreign conspiracies. A couple of hours before announcing Chávez’s death he announced the expulsion of two US diplomats and suggested that in the future the evidence would show that Chávez had been victim of an intentional attack against his health

Henrique Capriles Radonski was the presidential candidate that ran against Chávez in the 2012 elections. Capriles ran as a can-do, non-ideological candidate who could reconcile Venezuelans. Capriles is only 40 years old but has extensive political experience including President of the Congress (before the 1999 Constitution), Mayor of the Baruta Municipality, and two time Governor of Miranda State. He fared better against Chávez than any previous candidate and has remained the leader of the opposition. However, this leadership is not uncontested. Some in the opposition see him as too moderate and think his profile will not reach beyond 45% of the electorate. But it is unlikely that another viable candidate could emerge in such a short time frame.

 5.  How does Chavez death change dynamics in the region?

It is not likely to affect regional dynamics. Most of the processes which Chávez contributed to—the increase in regional independence vis-à-vis the US, and the creation of new multi-lateral initiatives such as Unasur and Celac—have inertia beyond Chávez and may even receive a boost from Chávez’s death as Chávez is mythologized.

 6.  What’s the impact on Bolivia, Nicaragua and other ALBA countries

We should not assume that ALBA will suddenly disappear. Maduro was Chávez’s Foreign Minister for six years and was one of the architects of ALBA. Thus Chávez’s legacy is also his legacy and he will like continue to support it.

 7.  What’s the impulse behind the expulsion of two U.S. Attaches?

It is certainly imaginable that US attaches were talking to people in the Venezuelan military, and the Chávez government did not like that. The timing certainly made it look like Maduro was using this, as well as the suggestion that Chávez’s cancer had been caused by a foreign conspiracy, to circle the wagons and create unity before what they knew was the imminent death of Chávez.

 8.  What can we expect will happen with U.S.-Venezuela relations now, and given the expulsion of the attaches?

On the one hand Maduro is a negotiator and was significant in a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with Colombia. One can imagine a similar improvement with the US. On the other hand, the conceptual anchor of Maduro’s ideology is an anti-imperialism in which the US is the more important symbolic foil. If Maduro were to be elected and lead a government with a broad consensus it is likely that relations with the US would improve. However, he has already shown that at vulnerable moments his key rhetorical move is to identify foreign conspiracies.