With President Hugo Chávez having completed his fourth and most difficult operation in 18 months, the whole world is asking, "What now?" Chávez's opponents want to know because they eagerly hope that this development means that Chávez will finally leave the political stage and his supporters want to know because they worry what it means for the future of the Bolivarian socialist project. The only two things we can say with certainty about Venezuela's future is, first, that its future is uncertain and, second, that it will never go back to the way it was before Chávez's first election almost exactly 14 years ago, in December of 1998.
Despite this uncertainty we can perhaps identify a few possible scenarios of what might happen in the near future. First, if Chávez survives and overcomes this latest bout with cancer, personally he will have been humbled, having faced mortality in this way, but he would be like the Phoenix that rises from the ashes, stronger than before - a feat that he already managed to perform following the 2002 coup attempt and 2003 oil industry shutdown.
All indications, though, given the somberness of his closest advisers and Chávez's own symbolic passing of the baton, when, in his last televised broadcast before leaving for treatment in Cuba, he handed Vice-President Nicolas Maduro the sword of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, is that Chávez will leave office sooner rather than later. Venezuela's National Assembly could, in theory, extend Chávez's temporary absence for up to six months--if he survives the cancer--before having to declare his separation from the presidency.
Once Chávez leaves office, either because he lost the battle with cancer, or due to his need to recover, new presidential elections must be called within thirty days. This is an extremely short period of time given the complicated logistics of organizing a national election, but could be facilitated if Chavez's departure from office takes a little bit more time and can thus be scheduled.
Since Chávez has already designated his party's candidate for the presidency, a new presidential election would be relatively straight-forward for the Bolivarian movement.
However, for the opposition, the situation is more complicated. Most likely it would run its presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, again--who last October 7 lost against Chávez by 11 percentage points. The opposition faces the added complication, though, that some factions within the opposition could challenge this scenario, especially if Capriles loses the December 16 governor's race in Miranda state against former Vice-President Elias Jaua. Finding a new viable candidate in a rush will be difficult for the fractious opposition.
If Maduro wins the election, which is quite possible, given his humble union organizer roots and his ability to connect with the country's working classes, he would probably faithfully follow in Chávez's footsteps, implementing the second socialist plan, which is currently being worked out by supporters throughout the country. His main challenge, though, would come after his honeymoon ends, when he has to keep the different factions within the Bolivarian movement together. The reason no one else came close to taking Chavez's place in all of these years is that Chávez seemed to be only one on whom everyone within the movement could agree upon.
Where Maduro might have an easier time than Chávez is with the opposition. No doubt, the opposition would try to undermine Maduro at every opportunity, just as it did with Chávez, but these efforts would be moderated by the fact that Maduro is less likely to offend in his public pronouncements than Chávez. Also, given his role as a loyal soldier under Chávez, he is less likely to be confrontational.
There is a possibility that Maduro would lose an election against an opposition candidate, however. There are many unresolved problems in Venezuela, among which the greatest are insecurity and state inefficiency. In his last campaign Chávez promised to resolve these issues in his next term and most Venezuelans believed him. It could be, though, that many Chávez-voters will not give Maduro this benefit of the doubt because Chávez was always more popular than the people around him, who many blame for poorly implemented policies.
This risk that Maduro does not inherit all of the support that Venezuelans gave to Chávez could give the opposition a false sense of optimism. That is, the opposition ignores Chávez's most recent pronouncement at its own peril, when he said, in reference to his presidency, "Venezuela has changed forever."
There are many ways in which Venezuela has changed during the Chávez presidency, but one of the most important of these changes is that now there is a politically active working class, one that is more conscious and more organised than ever before and that will actively resist any return to a status quo ante. This, as I said in the beginning, is one of the few certainties we have of Venezuela’s future.
This article was written for Brazilian newspaper Estadão, and can be read in Portuguese here.
Gregory Wilpert is a founder of Venezuelanalysis.com and teaches political science at Brooklyn College in New York City.