As Venezuela Mourns Chavez, Opposition Questions Constitutional Order

As Venezuela enters its second day of mourning of the death of President Hugo Chavez, leaders of the opposition have already begun criticisms of the president’s successors, accusing them of not following the constitution.
The Venezuelan people paid tribute to Chávez. (Prensa Presidencial)

Maracaibo, March 7th, 2013 ( – As Venezuela enters its second day of mourning of the death of President Hugo Chavez, leaders of the opposition have already begun criticisms of the president’s successors, accusing them of not following the constitution.

After President Chavez’s death was announced on Tuesday evening, a massive procession and car parade carried him through the streets of Caracas yesterday to the Military Academy where his body is lying in state for public viewing.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have been waiting in line throughout the night last night and during the day today to pay their last respects to the leader, while many nations around the world have expressed condolences and declared days of national mourning.

While most nations communicated messages of support and respect for the Venezuelan people in their time of mourning, the government of Canada and the United States were much less supportive.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a short statement on Tuesday that he looks forward to working with Chavez’s successors, and hopes Chavez’s death will bring a better future for the Venezuelan people.

“At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” said the statement.

Venezuela issued an official response on Wednesday, calling the statement “insensitive and disrespectful at a time when the Venezuelan people are mourning the irreparable loss of their leader President Hugo Chavez.”

US President Barak Obama also made a statement on Tuesday in which no condolences were offered to the Venezuelan people or to the family of the president, and only stated an “interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government”.

“The United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” it said.

Opposition Remarks

Leaders of the Venezuelan opposition did not waste time in launching new criticisms of the Chavez government and raising doubts about the constitutional process of succession.

Only hours after the country first learned of Chavez’s death Tuesday evening, opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado demanded to know who would be the new president.

“It is necessary to know who is in this moment the President of Venezuela and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,” Machado said via Twitter early Wednesday morning.

She went on to release a statement calling for the “transformation of the country” and demanding the “liberation of political prisoners” and an “end to the criminalization of political dissidence”.

When Vice-president Nicolas Maduro signed an official decree yesterday, Machado accused the government of a “flagrant violation of the constitution”.

Opposition media and analysts argue that it should be the president of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who takes over the presidency while new elections are called, but government officials assure that it is the vice-president who takes over temporarily.

Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution allows for both scenarios, depending on whether the absence occurs for a president-elect, or for a president that has already begun their term.

Since Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled in January that the Chavez government was not a newly elected government, and has “administrative continuity”, government officials assure that the president had begun his term, and that the vice-president should now take over until new elections are called in the next 30 days.

Other opposition analysts have focused on Article 229 of the constitution, which says that the vice-president cannot be elected to the presidency, and have thus argued that Maduro cannot stand as a candidate in the coming elections.

However, government officials have explained that Maduro will take over the presidency during 30 days, and thus will no longer be the vice-president.

In a statement of condolences on Tuesday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles refrained from taking a position on the constitutional debate, but did call for the constitution to be followed.

“We hope, like all Venezuelans, that [the government] acts strictly within the constitution,” he said.

Other opposition leaders have not sought to make an issue of the succession process, saying that what is most important is that an “absolute absence” be declared by the national assembly.

“Once the national assembly declares an absolute absence and swears in Maduro as president, I will be the first to raise my hand [to swear him in], because it won’t be a violation of the constitution,” said opposition legislator Hiram Gaviria.

Venezuela’s national assembly is expected to officially declare an “absolute absence” in the coming days, and to swear in Vice-president Nicolas Maduro to take over the presidency while new elections are organized.

Though it has not been announced officially, sources say that the opposition will declare their support for Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles as their candidate for the coming presidential elections.