Friday, January 4, 2013

Chavez Fighting 'Severe' Respiratory Infection in Havana Hospital

On Thursday night, Venezuelan Minister of Information Ernesto Villegas announced that President Hugo Chavez has a severe respiratory infection, and is battling respiratory failure in his hospital bed in Havana, Cuba. While past official statements on Chavez’s health have already referred to the infection, last night’s announcement was marked by a significant shift in tone, as it was the first time that the infection was described as “severe,” and the first time respiratory failure was mentioned.

Predictably, the news has further fueled speculation over a power transition in the country. While much of this is conjecture, the past several days have seen a number of well-informed analyses of the main issues and actors at play. The Just the Facts blog, for instance, profiles three recent pieces by El Pais correspondent Ewald Scharfenberg (published on December 30, January 2, and January 3) on the role that the Venezuelan Armed Forces may play in a future power shift. While the military has officially declared itself to be constitutionally neutral, Scharfenberg argues that the army has the capacity to determine who will take over from Chavez by lending logistical and administrative support to a candidate deemed friendly to its interests.

Thus in order for Vice President Nicolas Maduro (Chavez’s own preferred successor) to take office, he must win the backing of high-level officers. According to Scharfenberg, this is complicated by the fact that the individual most analysts believe to be his political rival, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, was part of the same 1987 military academy class as the majority of commanding officers in the armed forces.

The New York Times Room for Debate blog also features a collection of opinions on a post-Chavez Venezuela, with brief pieces from experts such as WOLA’s Joy Olson and David Smilde, former Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy and the Heritage Foundation’s Ray Walser. Especially interesting are the arguments of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moises Naim and The Caracas Chronicles’ Francisco Toro, who both claim that whoever fills Chavez’s shoes will have to contend with pressing economic woes like a fiscal deficit and food and medicine shortages. As Toro points out, this might force the next president to employ unpopular austerity measures, which would alter Chavez’s economic programs but ultimately solidify his historical legacy.

With the January 10 inauguration ceremony less than a week away, it looks highly unlikely that Chavez will be able to be sworn in. The next major development in the Venezuelan political climate -- and a potential first indicator of definite cracks in the Chavista camp -- will occur tomorrow, when the National Assembly meets to elect its president for the next year. As noted in Wednesday’s post, if Diosdado Cabello is not re-elected, it may be a sign that the establishment sees him as a threat, suggesting that he plans to challenge Maduro in emergency elections if Chavez dies. 

News Briefs
  • Returning from Cuba on Thursday, Venezuelan Vice President Maduro told members of the press that reports that US and Venezuelan diplomats were improving bilateral relations as a result of Chavez’s seemingly impending death were false. Though he acknowledged that Venezuelan diplomats had spoken with US officials, Maduro said that Chavez himself ordered the conversations, the AP reports.
  • El Periodico reports that in response to pressure from human rights groups, Guatemalan President Otto Perez has said that he is open to suspending a decree limiting the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to abuses which occurred after 1987.  In a press conference yesterday the president said that his administration would temporarily refrain from delivering the decree to the Court, effectively stopping it from entering into force “while a dialogue [on the matter] is opened.”
  • As a result of the government-mediated truce between the two largest street gangs in El Salvador, MS-13 and Barrio 18, the country’s police say that homicides fell more than 40 percent in 2012.  According to a National Civil Police spokesman contacted by EFE, El Salvador saw 2,576 murders last year, 1,795 less than in 2011.
  • The four Honduran Supreme Court judges controversially appointed by Congress last month took office yesterday, La Tribuna reports, despite the best attempts of protestors to block the judges from entering the court.
  • Yesterday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto officially dissolved the Secretariat of Public Security (SSP), which was charged with maintaining internal security in the country. According to Excelsior, the body’s responsibilities (which include oversight of the prison system and Federal Police) will be handled by the Interior Ministry. As InSight Crime notes, this is likely part of a strategy by Peña Nieto distance his policies from those of his predecessor Felipe Calderon, who relied on the SSP for security.
  • A new poll by Chile’s Center for Public Studies (CEP) shows that former President Michelle Bachelet remains the early favorite ahead of November elections in the country. The survey found that 53 percent of Chileans supported the former president, compared to 11 percent in favor of ex-Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne and 3 percent favoring former Defense Minister Andres Allamand. While Bachelet has not yet officially declared her candidacy, La Nacion reports that most analysts agree that she is almost guaranteed to run, and will leave her position as head of UN Women in March.
  • Telesur reports that Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa’s Alianza Pais party is kicking off its campaign in support of Correa’s re-election with a march which will travel from the capital to the western city of Portoviejo. Correa will be taking a leave of absence from the presidency from January 15 to February 14 to campaign, and analyst James Bosworth provides a list of factors to watch during this period.
  • In response to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s ad published in two UK newspapers reasserting her country’s claims to the Falkland Islands, British tabloid The Sun has taken out an ad in the English-language Buenos Aires Herald affirming the UK’s control over the islands.  
  • This week’s issue of the Economist takes a look at the slow pace of recovery efforts in Haiti three years after the earthquake, where unemployment is high and locals still depend on NGOs for basic assistance. It also profiles the political climate in Argentina, where President Fernandez is losing support from her traditional base, potentially creating an opening for more conservative Peronists to come to power in 2015.
  • According to the Digital Policy Council’s World Leaders on Twitter list, of the ten Twitter accounts belonging to world leaders, five belong to Latin American heads of state. The group says that this is proof that citizens in the region are rapidly embracing social media as a tool for political engagement.

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