Chavez needs a successor, but lacks good instincts

Chavez seems reluctant to promote other figures within his coalition who might rival his own power.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez
Chavez's wariness about promoting his fellow colleagues stems from "his own nature and personality" [REUTERS]

In the wake of electoral defeat, Venezuela’s conservative opposition is licking its wounds. Despite some polls which suggested that the presidential race had been tightening, Hugo Chavez pulled out a convincing victory, slapping down challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by a margin of some 10 percentage points. 

Impressively, Chavez won the popular vote in five of the six states currently held by the opposition, including the provincial state of Miranda where Capriles was governor before throwing his hat in the ring as a presidential candidate. 

Nevertheless, the future prognosis for Chavez and his movement is looking somewhat problematic. When the firebrand Venezuelan leader last ran for president in 2006, he smashed then-candidate Manuel Rosales by a whopping 25 percentage points, that is to say a margin more than twice as large as the October 2012 election. 

In a hard-edged mathematical sense, then, the Chavistas face severely diminished returns and if the opposition continues to run disciplined campaigns it could increase its voter share yet further in coming elections. Of particular concern to Chavez is the upcoming December election for state governors, which is expected to be tight. 

Unlike other fanatically anti-Chavez politicians of the past, Capriles was able to appeal to many political moderates. In contrast to the more extremist right-wing, Capriles promised to continue social programmes as opposed to scrapping many of the important hallmark achievements and initiatives of the past 14 years.  

Rejecting the more populist political model of Chavez, Capriles styled himself after cautious Brazilian-style political figures. Having run an effective campaign, Capriles may present himself as the viable future leader of the political opposition. 

Lack of a clear successor 

In the immediate term, Chavez’s most pressing concern will be the grooming of a political successor. For far too long, the Venezuelan President neglected such a need, preferring instead to preserve tight control over his own party machinery. 

The Bolivarian Revolution, however, has paid a stiff price for such vainglorious narcissism. Indeed, if Chavez had actually succumbed to his recent bout of cancer and Capriles faced off against a less charismatic candidate, the opposition might have won the October election. 

More than a year has now passed since the President was diagnosed with vaguely defined “abdominal cancer”. When asked, Chavez says not to worry and claims to be fully cured. However, cancer experts typically monitor their patients for several years before declaring that they are in a state of remission. 

The President has already undergone two surgeries and heavy treatment, and to this day, he refuses to release any detailed medical information about his state of health. Since Venezuela elects its president to a long six-year term, serious questions remain about Chavez’s ability to serve out his coming mandate. 

Already, the right is salivating over the prospect that Chavez might succumb to ill health and fail to delegate a successor. Roger Noriega of the Washington Times points out that if Chavez dies before completing four out of his six years in office, a new election must be called within 30 days. 

Pining away for the inevitable day of reckoning, Noriega adds, “Although such a contest may be months away, the infighting among Mr Chavez’s cronies already has begun in earnest. Such internecine warfare among the criminals and thugs who make up his [Chavez’s] inner circle likely will inflict great damage on the movement before its chosen successor even faces the invigorated opposition”. 

Chavez’s personal nature 

Though surely hyberbolic, Noriega raises some points worth considering as Chavez weighs the future of his movement. Through his own style of populist leadership, the Venezuelan President has been very effective in mobilising grassroots support for his programmes. 

Yet, by failing to delegate power or even demonstrating the remotest interest in real succession, he has recklessly jeopardised and imperiled Venezuela’s political future. Perhaps, Chavez’s wariness about promoting his fellow colleagues stems from his own nature and personality.  

According to Herma Marksman, a history professor who was married to Chavez between 1984 and 1993, the Venezuelan leader was ambitious from an early age and “even thought of running the country as a 20 year-old”. 

Nevertheless, she added that Chavez was unscrupulous, “trusted few people” and “does not have true friends”. If Chavez had a problem, Marksman remarked, he would only confide in his brother Adan or Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  

As a general rule, then, Chavez seems distrustful of others and is reluctant to promote other figures within his coalition who might rival his own power. 

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Cuba for cancer treatment

According to a WikiLeaks cable from the US Embassy in Caracas, “Chavez has stacked his cabinet with loyalists who can be expected to amplify and execute Chavez’s plans, rather than shape or temper the Venezuelan president’s ideas.” 

Nevertheless, with serious questions being raised about his health, the Venezuelan leader may be forced to finally act. Indeed, no sooner had the recent election concluded than speculation began concerning possible successors. Previously, Adan Chavez and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro have been mentioned as inheritors of the Bolivarian mantle, though neither can be said to share the President’s charisma.            

High level corruption 

Another related problem has to do with Chavez’s inner circle. Somewhat cryptically, Marksman told the US Embassy in Caracas that several individuals within the Chavez government were “dangerous”, including Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello.  

It’s difficult to evaluate the veracity of Marksman’s statements and perhaps, this is merely a case of an aggrieved former wife. The fact that Marksman would go to the US Embassy to speak disparagingly about her former husband suggests that she probably had her own political agenda.  

Nevertheless, other WikiLeaks cables suggest that all is not well within the Chavez inner circle. As I revealed in an earlier Al Jazeera article, another source told the Americans that Minister Cabello “was expanding his network of corruption into the financial sector”. The source added that Cabello and his “fascist and military” clique were “gaining ascendancy within Chavismo” to the detriment of older leftists. Where was Chavez? Perhaps, the Venezuelan leader had grown concerned about Cabello but he “was unable to diminish” his colleague’s influence. 

High level corruption is the last thing the Chavez coalition needs. Already, Venezuela suffers from rampant corruption within the ranks of the police, who reportedly carry out kidnappings and contribute to escalating urban crime. 

According to the Embassy source, the traditional left has become “increasingly disenchanted, at least in private, with Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, largely due to blatant corruption and the realisation that desire for power, rather than achievement of socialist goals, was its driving force”. 

Nepotism at the top? 

If Chavez does indeed favour advice from brother Adan and the reports are accurate, then one really needs to question the President’s overall instincts and judgment. An ideological throwback, Adan has benefitted from family associations and, like Cabello, is reportedly corrupt as well. 

Nevertheless, according to the US Embassy in Caracas, Adan “is widely perceived as pushing his presidential brother further to the left”. Just what kind of left agenda is Adan pushing, precisely? US Embassy cables provide some answers.  

In 2007, Chavez tapped his older brother to head the Education Ministry, where Adan was responsible for introducing “popular education” in schools as well as public spaces. 

A doctrinaire ideologue, Adan promptly announced plans to transform the educational system into an “authentic Bolivarian educational model”, based on the beliefs of Simon Bolivar and other national heroes. Adan additionally headed up a so-called “morality and enlightenment” campaign designed to promote Chavez ideology in the school system. 

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According to the Americans, Adan had previously served as Venezuela’s ambassador to Cuba and was “widely perceived to be committed to importing aspects of the Cuban educational system”. The Minister commissioned commissar-like “brigade members” to trumpet accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution, a move which reportedly irritated some educated Venezuelans who promptly fled into exile. 

In other, more unsavoury ways, Adan may have reaped some advantage from his political ties to Cuba. As I discussed in another Al Jazeera column, Cuba has helped to design and manage Chavez’s so-called “Mision Mercal”, a subsidised grocery programme, and the island nation also advised Venezuela on how to handle food distribution.  

According to the US Embassy, Venezuela financed some of its food imports through a “Havana branch of the Industrial Bank of Venezuela, and Chavez’s brother Adan Chavez, the Venezuelan Ambassador there, may profit illicitly from the loan process”.  

In 2008, Chavez appointed his older brother to run for governor of the provincial state of Barinas, a move which may have prompted some to wonder about political nepotism at the top. Indeed, the Chavez family had long dominated state politics in Barinas through a variety of posts. 

Chavez’s tapping of Adan, the Americans wrote, reflected “a preference for personal loyalty over administrative competence” and could fuel “criticisms of nepotism and corruption among the Chavez clan”. 

Despite such suspicions, Adan was successful in his bid for the governorship and was elected. However, Chavez’s brother continued to be dogged by unsavoury accusations, with one dissident from Chavez’s own party denouncing the Chavez family for corruption. According to the complaint, Adan accepted payment from dozens of companies involved in public works projects which were never carried out.  

Chavez’s backward choice 

Fortunately, Chavez does not seem to have settled on brother Adan to head up the Bolivarian movement. In a recent shakeup, the President announced that Nicolas Maduro will continue as Foreign Minister but will simultaneously occupy the office of Vice President. 

Though Chavez constantly reshuffles his cabinet, the recent move suggests that the President may be finally taking the succession issue seriously and sees Maduro as the most viable representative of the Bolivarian Revolution moving forward. 

Perhaps, the Maduro choice is better than Adan. Yet, on many levels, the Foreign Minister leaves much to be desired. Since 2006, Maduro has spearheaded a dreadful foreign policy which has embraced the likes of tyrant Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. 

To be sure, Venezuela has plenty of reasons to be wary of the US and the notion of building up a coalition to counteract Washington is understandable. However, Maduro’s handling of foreign policy severely discredits Venezuela and the Latin left. 

Botched opportunities 

Maduro has had a number of opportunities to renovate Venezuelan foreign policy, but has failed to deliver. Take, for example, the issue of climate change. A couple of years ago, Chavez’s geopolitical bloc ALBA seemed to be staking out a radical position on global warming, arguing that industrialised nations should pay a “climate debt” to poor countries. 

“Belatedly, Chavez seems to have become aware of the need to groom political successors should his health take a further turn for the worse.”

Perhaps, Maduro could have cobbled together a new geopolitical bloc comprised of ALBA, small island nations and other African countries which have much to lose from catastrophic climate change. 

By following up on such diplomacy, Maduro and Chavez would have shown that Venezuela, an oil exporting nation, was willing to be part of the solution as opposed to simply lambasting the Global North. Unfortunately, Maduro has demonstrated little follow through. 

In the early days, Chavez pursued a somewhat heterodox foreign policy by forging links not only with foreign leaders, but also with social movements on the ground. Last year, with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street in the US, Chavez was presented with another historic opportunity to demonstrate his radical bona fides. 

Perhaps, Maduro could have gotten out ahead of the movement by touting Venezuela’s programme of worker co-operatives, or alternatively convened an international conference supporting the notion of greater economic democracy. Occupy Wall Street, which never articulated a central strategy, might have benefitted from such exchanges or been receptive to a dialogue about worker co-operatives. Unfortunately, Maduro once again punted and Occupy fizzled out.    

Perhaps, such innovative foreign policy would have seemed out of place for Maduro, who represents the old guard. Indeed, within Chavez’s inner circle Maduro reportedly has the closest ties to Cuba and the Castro brothers. In the Middle East meanwhile, Maduro has taken a hard line.  

In 2011, as violence spun out of control in Syria, the Venezuelan travelled to Damascus to shore up the Assad regime. Maduro’s ridiculous foreign policy, which follows up on earlier Chavez missteps in Libya, has severely tarnished Venezuela’s image in the Arab world. 

Belatedly, Chavez seems to have become aware of the need to groom political successors should his health take a further turn for the worse. Yet, the Venezuelan leader has not demonstrated good instincts in diversifying his movement, more often than not tapping reportedly corrupt individuals or ideological throwbacks. Given such developments, the survival and political viability of Chavismo in the long-term has been thrown into some doubt. 

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff