Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What’s Next for Post-Chavez Venezuela?

After 14 years in power and a two-year battle with cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died yesterday at 4:25pm Caracas time. There are a number of good overviews of his legacy in the press today, both positive and negative.

In The Atlantic, The Caracas Chronicles’ Francisco Toro blasts Chavez for “craft[ing] a state where his will wasn't just unchecked, but where he would never suffer the indignity of having to account for his decisions.” The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, who met with the Venezuelan leader several times, offers a more personal look  at Chavez’s characteristically frank leadership style, referring to him as a “warm and amiable showman.”  Simon Romero's obituary of Chavez in the New York Times is a well-written portrayal of a complex, divisive figure, and is definitely worth reading in full. Also in the NYT, Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll excoriates Chavez not for his ideology or authoritarian government, but for poor management.

El Nacional reports that the Venezuelan government has announced a weeklong mourning period, and the next three days have been declared national holidays. According to Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, a funeral procession will be held today from the military hospital where Chavez died to the Military Academy, where memorial services will continue for the rest of the week. The final funeral ceremony is planned for Friday. The Associated Press covers reactions to Chavez’s death in Venezuela, where until recently nearly two-thirds of the public believed he would recover from his illness. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, looks at the public reaction to the news from world leaders.

In the wake of the announcement, many are asking what the future holds for the country. According to the Venezuelan constitution, elections must be held in the next 30 days.  In the meantime, the government has announced that Vice President Nicolas Maduro will serve as interim president, despite the objections by some that the constitution calls for National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello to occupy the position.

The move is likely a bid to minimize the chance of splintering within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). While Maduro is Chavez’s chosen successor and will run in the upcoming elections, Cabello is widely seen as a political rival of Maduro’s, although the two have denied this and attempted to present a united front publicly.

But the two may not be as close as they say. According to a recent report in El Nuevo Herald, the January Supreme Court decision which allowed Chavez to delay his inauguration ceremony was also intended to block Cabello from taking temporary office. The Herald cited “sources close to the situation” who said that the decision was the result of pressure from the pro-Maduro wing of the PSUV who were worried about Cabello’s political ambitions. With Chavez out of the picture, there is no better time for Cabello to act on these alleged ambitions.

So far, he has made no indication that he will challenge Maduro in the upcoming elections.  According to Venezuela’s El Tiempo, he called for unity yesterday, and appealed to the public to follow Chavez’s example by “not allowing room for conspiracy.”

But this does not mean that Maduro’s succession is completely guaranteed. Without Chavez’s cult of personality, he is much more vulnerable to criticism and will have a harder time managing the PSUV’s ruling coalition. The opposition, led by Henrique Capriles, has continually attacked him for alleged corruption and concealing information about Chavez’s health, claims they will likely repeat ahead of the upcoming elections. Recent opinion polls show that Maduro holds a 14-point advantage over Capriles, but it remains to be seen whether he can maintain this lead over the next month.  His popularity has been affected by mounting criticism from the Chavista camp as well, most recently over the unpopular devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar.

A sign that Maduro recognizes these challenges came in a speech he gave hours before Chavez’s death yesterday, in which he expelled two U.S. military attaches and claimed that the government had indications that Chavez’s cancer had been given to him by his enemies. As Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Shannon K. O’Neil noted last night in a conversation with the NYT’s Marcus Mabry, the speech suggests Maduro is attempting to rally the PSUV support base by “turning to an outside enemy,” in this case the United States.

Aside from the short-term question of whether Maduro will succeed Chavez, the broader issue is whether the eventual successor will be able to effectively manage Venezuela’s state institutions, which have revolved around Chavez for the past 14 years. This will be especially difficult in the face of mounting inflation, historic food shortages and slowing growth.  In a long and in-depth analysis piece, The Economist offers a pessimistic forecast for the country, noting that even if the PSUV wins the election, it is "ill-equipped” to manage these problems in Chavez's absence.

News Briefs
  • Paul Richter and Chris Kraul of the L.A. Times question whether Venezuela-U.S. relations could improve after Chavez’s death. Maduro’s speech yesterday and the expulsion of the military attaches is not a hopeful first sign, but there is still reason to believe he might be “softer” towards the U.S. than Chavez. Dan Beeton of the Center for Economic Policy Research places the impetus for improving relations on the United States, but argues that there is little support for this among U.S. policymakers.
  • The New York Times reports on the irreverent celebration of Chavez’s death among many in the Venezuelan expatriate community in the Miami metropolitan area. Residents of the town of Doral, Florida, were particularly jubilant. According to the Times, the town has received so many Venezuelan expats in recent years that many refer to it as “Doralzuela.”  
  • The United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has released its annual report, which blasts the recent shift towards alternative drug policy in the hemisphere. As InSight Crime notes, the report reserves special criticism for “the recent high-level call in some countries” in Central America to pursue alternatives, a reference to Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s advocacy of drug legalization. The UN watchdog report is also highly critical of Bolivia’s recent push to normalize coca cultivation for traditional uses, Uruguay’s marijuana legalization initiative and the legalization of marijuana consumption in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington. Writing for the Huffington Post, Daniel Wolfe of the Open Society Foundations’ International Harm Reduction Development Program points out five ways in which the INCB report falls short on human rights and public health grounds.
  • Instead of taking advantage of the congressional majority of the ruling Broad Front coalition, the government of Uruguay has decided to promote public debate of its marijuana legalization initiative, Uruguay’s Red21 reports. According to Julio Calzada, president of the government’s National Drug Council, a series of roundtable discussions will be organized around the country in the next 90 days to educate the public on the bill and its foreseen effects on public health and crime.  After that the bill will be put to a vote in Congress.
  • Ahead of International Women’s Day this Friday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas has published an insightful study on gender equality in Cuba, entitled “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future” (.pdf available here). The report, authored by CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens, demonstrates that despite the Cuban Revolution’s focus on empowering women, Cuban women are more liberated on paper than in the social sphere. While the island has long had progressive women’s rights laws in place, just 40 percent of working-age Cuban women are employed. Those that do work make less than half of what men earn, on average. Spanish news agency EFE notes that the report suggests this situation was exacerbated by the recent economic crisis. As Stephens remarked to the New York Times in an interview this week “It’s just not enough to have good laws.”
  • The L.A. Times’ World News Now blog notes that Forbes’ latest list of the world’s richest men does not include Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. The magazine says his assets cannot be verified and evidence suggests Guzman has spent a significant amount of his fortune on security. The blog also notes that the omission was lobbied for by the magazine’s Mexican edition.
  • Colombia’s El Espectador looks at the leaders of the ongoing coffee growers’ strike across the country, which as of today have been raging for ten days. According to Vanguardia, the government and movement leaders are meeting again today, and hopes are high that an agreement will be reached and the demonstrations will end.
  • Reuters looks at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s attempts to win over support among Brazil’s private sector, in a bid to reverse a slowing economy that could threaten her re-election next year. 
  • According to the Catholic Land Pastoral group, a land rights advocacy organization, the number of land rights activists killed in Brazil jumped by 10 percent in 2012. The group claims that the majority of the 32 victims were killed in conflicts with logging companies in the Amazon.
  • Oil giant Chevron has said that it is open to having either the ALBA bloc or Unasur mediate its case with the government of Ecuador, which is suing the company for $19 billion in damage to the Amazon region. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa made a similar plea to ALBA and Unasur in late February after a Hague tribunal ruled against the country’s claim.
  • Chile is moving ahead with plans to exhume the remains of poet Pablo Neruda, who many suspect was poisoned by the Pinochet regime in 1973. According to EFE, Neruda’s remains will be examined next month by forensic scientists.