It was always about time.
Hugo Chavez had been feeling poorly for months before Cuban surgeons cut him open twice last June.
Chavez should have undergone extensive medical tests at least a year before he went under the knife in Havana. However, the president rejected all suggestions that he see a doctor, until chief mentor and handler Fidel Castro finally forced the issue last June. But by then it was already way too late; the window of time when Chavez’s cancer might have been detected and removed early enough to save his life or at least prolong it for several years more had closed.
Chavez believed right up to last June that he had all the time in the world. He planned to win re-election in 2012, and again in 2018, 2024, 2030 and 2036. We know this because he said so, quite frequently. Get used to it, I’m not leaving and you’re never coming back, Chavez would rant at his foes. Chavez felt strong. The Bolivarian Revolution was forever and Chavez was absolutely indispensable. Venezuela and its oil and other riches, including its people, would be Chavez’s socialist “latifundio” for generations to come. Hugo the publicly anointed successor to Fidel would reign as supreme leader of the Latin American revolution for at least the next 30 years. Without Chavez there is no revolution, radicals like Lina Ron proclaimed. But her time ran out too.
The president’s cancer slashed his expectations of at least 30 more years in power to just 18 months counted as of June 2011. Chavez’s closest confidantes, including Fidel, brother Adan, the president’s daughters, his Cuban and Venezuelan doctors, General Henry Rangel Silva, maybe a couple or three more, have known since last June that Chavez’s days are counted. Others in the regime with their own longtime Cuban connections, like Jose Vicente Rangel and Ali Rodriguez Araque, also know.
Chavez knows it too, though he desperately wants to make everyone including himself believe that Chavez is cured. Who knows? Chavez might appear to be in fine fettle over the coming weeks and months, but perhaps not. Whatever new treatments that Chavez is subjected to could make him feel, and look, much worse than he already does. All credible reports indicate that what Chavez has is incurable (RunRunes is required reading). Certainly, if the prognosis from the start last June had been a reasonably good one, the regime’s propaganda machine could have been expected to trumpet the wonderful news from day one. Yes, yes, the regime’s paranoid penchant for secrecy certainly was a factor in the official information blackout, but the news right from the first surgery was so bad that Chavez and the people closest to him decided that the full truth had to be kept from everyone to prevent the lid from blowing off in Venezuela.
Chavez’s one overriding goal since his terminal carcinoma was confirmed has been to make it to the presidential elections in sufficiently good shape to win re-election. His closest associates also share that goal. “Without Chavez there is no chavismo,” right? But there have been doubts since the beginning about whether the president would be capable physically of going the full distance: the election was advanced two months to 7 October from December 2012.
The re-election of Chavez for yet another six-year term is absolutely essential for the Bolivarian regime’s chances of surviving much beyond the end of 2012. Chavez cannot stand aside and handpick someone to run as his designated successor in the elections. Chavez has never entertained grooming an heir, or heirs. Chavez expected to rule for decades and live a long life on the world stage, herding his Venezuelan sheep into his grand sea of peaceful socialist felicity.
Chavez couldn’t designate anyone to replace him as the PSUV’s only candidate anyway, because none of his senior satraps have any legitimacy anywhere in Venezuela including within the PSUV. Who could claim legitimately to be Chavez’s successor as candidate or president – Jaua, Cabello, Maduro, Ramirez, his older bro’ Adan? Their fate in a presidential election would be as swift and final as a cockroach surrounded by chickens. Anyone Chavez would appoint to run as president would get his (or her) ass whipped by Henrique Capriles Radonsky come 7 October. So it has to be Chavez, even more so after the MUD’s 12 February presidential primaries in which over 3 million Venezuelans participated and gave Capriles a solid popular mandate, hence legitimacy, which none of the jackanapes floated as possible successors possess.
The goal is to get Chavez re-elected at all costs, defeating Capriles convincingly, and likely creating subsequent internal disarray within the MUD that could take months to settle. If Chavez is re-elected, takes the oath of office and subsequently stands down for health reasons the Bolivarian gang’s survival prospects could be much brighter – at least that’s how they see the future. Article 233 of the Bolivarian Constitution says that if the president stands down in the first four years of his term, the vice president takes over and new elections must be held in 30 days. How does this favor the Bolivarian regime? A Capriles who lost the general elections next October would not be able to legitimately claim a mandate as the MUD’s obvious candidate in new elections against whoever the PSUV would run as Chavez’s replacement. In fact, once Chavez is out of the picture, whether before or after the elections, the MUD’s unity could be expected to fracture very quickly. The PSUV’s chances of hanging on if Chavez steps down in 2013 after his new term is launched would be stronger against a divided opposition.
But does Chavez have that much time left? Can Chavez stay on his feet and look healthy at least until February 2013, 11 months from today?
I believe that Chavez is already dead politically. The only thing still holding together the Bolivarian regime, and also the MUD, as I write this post is the general uncertainty over just how sick Chavez really is. Right now Chavez and his first circle of trust, which includes Fidel in Havana, are maintaining the fiction that Chavez is making a kickass comeback from last week’s surgery with a cell phone on speed dial and doctored photographs. The top PSUV satraps in Caracas, clueless about the president’s real health prognosis but nonetheless fiercely loyal to him (at least verbally), are engaged in propaganda theatrics aimed at making a gullible populace think that Chavez will come back strong very soon. However, privately they are eyeing each other nervously, sharpening their daggers, plotting their next move and revisiting old contingency bailout plans drawn up after the 11 April 2002 violence that almost cost them everything – until the treachery of Pedro Carmona Estanga and his patrons, the Caldera family, restored Chavez to power.
The longer Chavez stays out of play, the likelier it becomes that uncertainty about his condition will harden into certainty that he’s a goner. It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment in time this shift could happen, but if Chavez drops out of the race before the 7 October elections all bets are off. Huge internal rifts would open up immediately inside the Bolivarian regime and ruling PSUV party. The politically manufactured mirage of alleged military unity in support of Chavez and the revolution would vanish almost instantly. And the opposition MUD’s internal unity would collapse.
If Chavez is felled by cancer before the 7 October elections, there’s no reason for the MUD to hold together. The biggest losers in the 12 February primaries weren’t Chavez and his Boludorianos. The biggest losers were Accion Democratica, Copei and MAS and various spinoffs of these parties, all of whom backed the candidacy of Zulia governor Pablo Perez. AD, Copei, MAS had to eat their loss because it was the people’s will. In the power vacuum immediately following a Chavez departure before the 7 October elections, it’s very likely that AD, Copei, MAS and various Fourth Republic dinosaurs like Henry Ramos Allup, Eduardo Fernandez, Ramon Rosales, Teodoro Petkoff, et al wouldn’t stand by Capriles. Chavez gone, new game, old rules of the MUD no longer would apply. Digo yo…por ahora.