Chavez’s Cult of Personality Creates Succession Problems

Chavez illVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s approach to power has been so centered on himself — la revolución soy yo — that it is unclear who can pick up the reins should Chávez either depart from this world or not be fit enough to seek re-election next year. Constitutionally, Venezuela does have a Vice President, Elías Jaua, and should Chávez not be able to finish his term, Jaua would become President to fill the remainder of the current term which runs through the end of 2012.

The bigger question is who can fill the immense void that Hugo Chávez’s departure from the scene creates? The Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, is perhaps the second best known voice of the revolution internationally but there are other actors who perform more on the domestic stage like Cilia Flores, Aristóbulo Isturiz and Diosdado Cabello, all of whom are leaders of the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela). All three currently serve in the National Assembly and have played leading roles in Venezuelan politics during the past 12 years. Flores is the President of the National Assembly (she’s also married to Nicolás Maduro). Isturiz, an academic by training and an Afro-Venezuelan, is the former Minister of Education. Cabello is a decades long Chávez confidant having served in the military with Chávez and who with Chávez participated in the failed coup against Carlos Andrés Perez in 1992. It was Cabello who regained control during the abortive 2002 coup that aimed to topple Chávez. After detaining the coup leaders, Cabello assumed the presidency briefly before restoring Chávez to power. Cabello has also served in the cabinet holding key ministries such as the Interior and Housing & Public Works. Meanwhile the youthful Jaua — he’s 42 — in addition to being the Vice President is also the Minister of Agriculture having previously headed the land expropriation program. Returning to Maduro, he is a former bus driver with a high school degree who worked his way up the trade union movement becoming a founder of the Movimiento V República, the Fifth Republic Movement, one of the main left-wing factions that supported Chávez in his political rehabilitation back in 1998.

None of these political actors are really popular on the level that Chávez is with the lower strata of Venezuelan society, many of whom genuinely worship Chávez. However with the Chávez regime very much a throwback to the political tradition of caudillismo that was prevalent in many, but not all, LATAM countries in the 19th and through the mid-20th century, Chávez simply never the prepared the groundwork for a successor. On more than one occasion, Chávez envisioned staying at the helm through 2025 or even 2031. Should Chávez not be able to continue in power, filling the vacuum should strenuously test the PSUV.

Beyond those mentioned above, there are others who might seek to fill Chávez’s shoes. Among these is the well-known former Vice President and the leading ideologue of the PSUV José Vicente Rangel. Rangel’s main drawback is that he is in his mid 80s though he remains quite active. Another aspirant might be the dashing, charismatic and fiery Tareck el Aissami, who serves as Minister of the Interior and Justice. He is of Syrian descent but he’s just 36 and not immune to controversy. Still el Aissami has worked his up way the ladders of chavismo rather quickly first running the youth movement of the party while still a university student. That earned him an appointment as the Deputy Director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate which handles the national identity card essential to virtually all legal and financial transactions which in turn led to his appointment as Vice Minister for Public Security. Perhaps the most formidable candidate is Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez Carreño who has been an important player in the PSUV party hierarchy for over a decade and who also, perhaps more importantly, happens to run PDVSA, the state oil company. By virtue of these posts he is well known abroad and his controlling position at the head of the still vast Venezuelan energy sector provides Ramírez Carreño an important platform that others lack. He comes with a fiefdom that remains a cash cow. Still the wild card is Adán Chávez, the President’s older brother who is currently the Governor of the state of Barinas.

It is quite possible that Chávez keeps it in the family and uses his “dedazo” to anoint his older sibling as his successor, a rare event in the annals of Latin American history. Dynastic regimes have arisen in Nicaragua and in Paraguay and most recently Cuba but even there Raúl Castro is preparing Cuba for a Castro-less future. The Venezuelan press seems to think, or perhaps better put, seems to hope that the heavyweight contender to lead a post-Chávez Venezuela is Rafael Ramírez Carreño. Perhaps tellingly however, the ones in Havana with Chávez are his brother, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Henry Rangel Silva, the Armed Forces Chief.

In the interim, it seems that Venezuela will be governed from Havana. In remarks to a Colombian radio network on June 30th, Vice President Jaua indicated that Venezuelan policy makers and jurists were relying on an interpretation of the Venezuelan Constitution that permits the president to exercise his duties as head of state from abroad for a three-month period, which could then be extended for another three months. It is increasingly unlikely, however, that Chávez will return to Caracas in time for the country’s bicentennial on July 5. So much for the best laid schemes of mice and autocrats.

Charles Lemos writes on politics, international affairs and economics. He has a degree in history from Stanford University and a degree in International Finance from the University of California. He spent a decade on Wall Street working for Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst. He currently blogs at MyDD.