Wednesday, January 2, 2013

With Chavez's Health Uncertain, Potential for Instability Grows

In keeping with the trend in recent months, the past two weeks have seen several conflicting reports on the state of Hugo Chavez’s health. While Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro told the press in late December that Chavez was recovering well from cancer treatment in Cuba, the AP reports that he has since reversed this statement, saying that new complications had arisen, and that the president’s health was “delicate.”

In recognition of the news, the Venezuelan Interior Ministry canceled a planned state-sponsored New Year’s Eve celebration in Caracas’ Plaza Bolivar. However, Maduro denied reports that Chavez was in a medically-induced coma and on life support, saying he was conscious and aware of his situation.

Nevertheless, it seems increasingly likely that the Venezuelan president’s administration, as well as his life, will soon be coming to an end. Many analysts fear that Chavez’s death could bring about a period of dangerous and possibly violent instability in the country. The president has proven himself to be skilled at using his leadership to unite conflicting political interests, and without him these forces will be difficult to hold together. Still, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark Weisbrot argues, the major gains made by Chavez’s Socialist Party (PSUV) in the December 16th regional elections suggests that the PSUV is popular and unified enough to carry on without him.

Writing for World Politics Review, Jennifer McCoy and Michael McCarthy point out that Chavez’s decision to name Maduro as a potential successor has forestalled an internal power struggle in the short run. They also contend that Chavez’s failing health has not, as the opposition hoped, served to turn people against chavismo, and the majority of Venezuelans will likely rally around Maduro should it come to that.

Still, only time will tell what a power transition in Venezuela will bring. The first indicator of turbulence could come as soon as January 5th, when the National Assembly will meet to elect its head for the next year. The current head of the legislature is Diosdado Cabello, considered to be a political rival of Maduro’s. If he is re-elected and Chavez dies before inauguration, then according to the constitution, Cabello and not Maduro would become temporary head of state until emergency elections are held.  Alternatively, as Caracas Chronicles notes, if Cabello is not re-elected it could be a sign that Maduro and the PSUV establishment see him as a threat, suggesting that he may challenge Maduro in elections if Chavez dies.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times reports on Bolivia’s unorthodox “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” strategy of allowing licensed farmers to cultivate coca for traditional uses. The paper notes that as a result the total amount of land used for coca dropped by 12 percent in 2011. Still, concerns persist about the effectiveness of the government’s monitoring efforts, with the US government and some analysts arguing that much of the legal crop is funneled into the drug trade. WOLA and the Andean Information Network have released a joint assessment of these claims, offering a comprehensive analysis of the effect of Bolivia’s drug policy thus far.
  • The Times also profiles the case of Jacob Ostreicher, the American citizen being held in Bolivia on allegations of drug ties. Despite the fact that more than a dozen corrupt federal prosecutors on the case have been imprisoned after attempting to extort Ostreicher, he remains under house arrest in the country.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales has nationalized Spanish-owned electricity supply companies, according to El Pais. The move comes after the president accused the companies of overcharging residents of rural areas, claiming that rural households paid more than twice the price for electricity than their urban counterparts.
  • Siglo21 reports that a Guatemalan prosecutor and a local government official were killed while traveling near the border with Mexico on December 24th, after their vehicle was intercepted by gunmen. President Otto Perez claimed that the murders were linked to organized crime, and said that a foreign (likely Mexican) group may have been involved.
  • The Associated Press’ Alberto Arce provides an interesting firsthand account of his life as a journalist in Honduras, and the difficulties he faces in reporting on the country’s violent political landscape and criminal underworld. According to Arce, he is the only foreign correspondent currently in Honduras.
  • La Tribuna reports that on December 22, after weeks of conflict between the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court, the US embassy in Honduras released a statement on the ongoing attack on judicial independence in the country. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, however, the embassy’s carefully-worded official statement takes no official stance on the development.
  • The L.A. Times takes a look at reports of torture or forced confession in Mexico, as investigations by human rights organizations and testimony from victims suggest that security forces’ use of torture has skyrocketed since 2006. The number of officials tried for this crime, however, remains abysmally low.
  • El Espectador features a description by Enrique Santos, brother of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, of the early efforts to convince FARC guerrillas to negotiate with the government. According to him, the peace process involved months of secret meetings with guerrilla leaders in Cuba, beginning as early as 2010.
  • In a setback for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, on December 27th the Supreme Court ruled against an appeal by the administration to remove a hold placed on its planned dismantling of the Clarin media group in keeping with an anti-media monopoly law, MercoPress reports.
  • The Washington Post reports on the crack epidemic in Brazil, making a comparison to the wave of crack abuse that swept through cities in the United States in the 1980s.  The comparison is limited, however. While the US responded by imposing harsh mandatory sentences for crack possession or sales, Brazil has responded to the problem by viewing it through a public health lens, achieving mixed success.

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