The illness of Hugo Chávez creates uncertainty over the future direction of his government, and specifically its commitment to revolutionary change and socialism. Throughout the fourteen years of his presidency, the key to Chávez’s political success was the constant deepening of the process of change, which invigorated the rank and file of his movement. Chávez’s political capital, which enabled him to decree radical changes, was well earned. It stemmed from the extreme courage he demonstrated with the coup attempt he led in 1992 and the one that was led against him in 2002, as well as the compassion he has shown for the underprivileged.
Before traveling to Cuba on December 9 to be operated on, Chávez called on his followers to vote for Vice-President Nicolás Maduro if circumstances required him to step down. Maduro is a former trade union leader who was Minister of Foreign Relations between 2006 and 2012. More than several other top Chávista leaders, Maduro supports certain far-reaching measures favoring the non-privileged sectors. Thus, for instance, he headed a presidentially appointed commission that during several months drafted the new labour law that Chávez signed on 30 April. Not all Chávista national deputies had previously been in agreement with the law’s far-reaching provisions, and ratification was held up in the National Assembly for over five years. The law eliminates the practice of outsourcing and creates a controversial system of severance pay that the business organization FEDECAMARAS had opposed since its founding in 1944.
Had it not been for his illness, Chávez would have undoubtedly taken advantage of the momentum created by the electoral triumphs of the October presidential election and the December gubernatorial ones by carrying out bold initiatives to deepen the process of change. These actions would have been in keeping with his strategy up until now of striking out in new directions immediately after each victory. Measures at the outset of his new presidency may have included expropriations of monopoly firms that have created shortages of important items in recent months, or punishment of corrupt officials to set an example for the rest of the public administration. Whether Chávez retains the presidency during a lengthy period of recuperation or whether Maduro assumes the presidency, the national executive is now less likely to surprise the nation with bold actions of this nature. Chávez’s physical weakness would weigh in if indeed he remains in power. Furthermore, regardless of his intentions, Maduro lacks Chávez’s political capital to enable him to overcome resistance from within his movement and from powerful interests outside of it.
Nevertheless, two considerations are on the plus side of the balance sheet for the Chávistas. In the first place, the opposition is greatly demoralized. In fact, its defeat in 20 of the nation’s 23 states in the December gubernatorial elections was due in large part to the abstention of its supporters following its disappointing showing in the October presidential contests.
Second, regardless of the outcome of Chávez’s bout with cancer, the situation has thrust on the Chávista movement the issue of collective leadership. Many Chávistas, including intellectuals grouped in the outspoken Centro Internacional Miranda, have for some time expressed concern about the movement’s excessive reliance on one individual. In the month that Chávez has been absent from the nation, Maudro and Diosdado Cabello (the other main Chávista leader) have worked as a team. Political rivalry occurs in all political organizations and in the case of the Chávista movement there are concrete differences that underpin it. If Chávez eventually recovers and if in the meantime the Chávistas move in the direction of a collective leadership based on the recognition of diverse positions—albeit just roughly defined—then Chávez’s health ordeal may someday be considered a blessing in disguise.
Steve Ellner has been teaching economic history at the Universidad de Oriente since 1977. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon.