Venezuela’s Constitutional Calamity

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president, has controlled almost every aspect of his country’s political life since he was first elected 13 years ago. Now that he is convalescing in Cuba following another surgery to treat cancer, unable to return for the swearing-in ceremony that should mark the commencement of his next term in office, his country is in complete limbo.

This should come as no surprise. In representative democracies, power is shared among many people and government offices, a system that allows the government to continue to function no matter what happens to its leaders. However, in nations with an authoritarian political system like Venezuela’s, a single person controls most important institutions — Chavez controls the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the army, the electoral organizations and the national media. So if that person falls ill, as Chavez has, the entire system comes to a halt. And nobody in Venezuela will make any decision that Chavez might disagree with.

Chavez won the election in October and went to Cuba for treatment in December, and he has been unable to leave the hospital since then. Though the government is unwilling to divulge many details about his condition, we know that Chavez underwent surgery for a fourth time to treat cancer and contracted a respiratory infection shortly afterward. His inauguration, which was scheduled for Jan. 1o, has been postponed indefinitely.

Venezuela’s current Bolivarian constitution (which was crafted in 1999, basically to benefit Chavez) lays out the procedure for swearing presidents into office. Article 231 states that “the elected candidate will be sworn in as president on Jan. 10 of the first year of his constitutional term.” The constitution also explains that “if for any reason the president of the republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he will be sworn in before the Supreme Court.”

The document does not include procedures for postponing an inauguration, but the Venezuelan assembly voted earlier this month to delay the ceremony until Chavez is well enough to return. The Chavez administration claims that the inauguration is a mere “formality” and should not affect his government’s continuity (though this would be the first time this formality is not observed since 1831).

Chavez’s critics argue that an indefinite postponement is illegal, pointing to Article 233 of the constitution, which stipulates that if a president is “absolutely” absent prior to his inauguration, a new election should be held in 30 days, and to Article 234, which says if a president is “temporarily” absent, the vice president should be appointed for up to 90 days, a period that can be extended by the National Assembly.

But Chavez loyalists are so afraid of the president — after all, strongmen rule by fear — that they won’t even acknowledge that he is, well, absent. The terrified members of the Supreme Court have weighed in and concluded that Chavez can be inaugurated at another, unspecified date, and have declared an “administrative continuity” for his government. The court also ruled out appointing a medical board to determine whether Chavez is healthy enough to resume his duties.

So who is running Venezuela?

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez designated as his successor, is in charge for now. But if Chavez’s condition worsens, it seems possible that Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly, could attempt to assume leadership or even try to grab the vice presidency from Maduro. Both men have visited Chavez in Cuba and have been shown on Venezuelan state television smiling and hugging each other in a show of solidarity, but a power struggle is brewing between them.

During this time of uncertainty, opposition leaders can complain all they want, but their opinions will not be taken into account since Venezuela is controlled by the “Chavistas.” Unless Chavez leaves the political scene entirely, nothing will change for the foreseeable future. The wisest thing for Chavez critics can do is to wait and see how the Chavistas attempt to extricate themselves from the constitutional mess they’ve created.

Though Chavez has always pretended to be the elected leader of a democracy, his illness has exposed the truth: that he and his followers have transferred too much authority to just one office. Latin America’s history is peppered with strongmen with uncontrollable egos who gave themselves unlimited power; their stories never end well.

If Chavez had put his nation’s interests over his own, he wouldn’t have implemented a political system founded on a cult of personality. But it’s too late. And now that he is sick, nobody knows how to carry on without him.

By Jorge Ramos Avalos.

(January 8, 2013)

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”