Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is battling for his life after cancer surgery in Cuba and will not attend his January 10 inauguration in Caracas. And it is an absence leaving a trail of questions for Venezuelans living abroad. They are asking what's next. Will Chávez, a protégé of Fidel Castro and foe of Washington, continue pioneering what he calls his "21st Century Socialism,' and, if he can't, what about the next leader?
It's a situation that has Venezuelans on edge, playing out like a Latin American magic realism novel, or one of the country's popular telenovelas.
It started on December 10th, when President Hugo Chávez traveled to Cuba for his fourth cancer surgery. Since then, he has disappeared from the public and is believed to be in grave condition. Meanwhile, his inauguration—the start of his 14th year in power, his third term in office—was slated for January 10. The presidents of Uruguay and Bolivia said that they will be there. But Chávez? He won't show.
In Venezuela, Chávez supporters are holding street rallies to show their support. They're chanting, "The constitution is the revolution!' They wave what's known as the "Little Blue Book,' a pocket-sized copy of Venezuela's constitution, which Chávez revamped after taking power in 1999. But those revamped laws are up for debate. Critics said that Chávez and his supporters are stretching the constitution to protect the president's power.
Asdrúbal Aguiar is a Venezuelan law professor and former judge with the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. In an interview with Globovisión, a TV channel critical of Chávez, he said, "The first thing to prove is, was he elected by popular vote? Yes. Was he declared president? Yes. Has he been sworn in? No, not yet,' he said. "So, if this doesn't happen on January 10th, we need to revise the constitutions of 1961, 1952, 1947, 1936. We must check all of our constitutions.'
To Venezuelans in the United States, it can look confusing. "They're not really creating a climate of institutional authority in Venezuela,' said Otto Scheuren, an advertising executive in Los Angeles. He left Venezuela for a better job in the U.S. 11 years ago, shortly after the 2002 failed coup attempt against Chávez. He keeps up with the news back home through friends, family, and Venezuelan papers online.
"Now that Chávez is sick, it's even more obvious,' said Scheuren. "We have a constitution, but now he's asked for an extension and was granted one. So then why do we even have a constitution? We Venezuelans have no idea where we're headed to—we haven't known for years.'
Scheuren is disheartened. Venezuela's rule of law is vanishing, he said, and he wonders what will happen after January 10th. Will the country follow the constitution and respect a 90-day temporary ruling period by the head of Venezuela's Congress? And then what? What if Chávez still can't return? Will there be new elections?
Meantime, in Venezuela, Chávez's political rivals are fueling concerns. Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in October's elections, worries about the military's role in a political transition. Chávez is a former colonel—close to the military. And so is Diosdado Cabello, who leads Venezuela's congress and would assume power if Chávez can't. Cabello is also loyal to chavismo—the president's anti-capitalist, hard-left ideology—and will stick to it, he said, with or without Chávez.
The thought of a post-Chávez Venezuela led by the military gives Edgardo Ochoa chills. He's from Venezuela's city of Valencia and moved to Los Angeles in 1996. "I don't see what's going to happen in the next month or two,' Ochoa said. "The status quo, for me, is going to stay. It doesn't make a huge difference is Chávez is dead or if he's not dead, because the problem is the people—the people that he has there ruling the country.'
But can the revolution survive without its leader? Luis Duno-Gottberg believes so. He is a Venezuelan professor of Hispanic Studies at Rice University in Houston. Duno-Gottberg said that Chávez's long rule has transformed Venezuela's society—and that his brand of politics, chavismo, can endure. After all, he said, Venezuelans have voted for Chávez's socialist rule and protested to defend his rule.
But there are complications: possible splits within the military. And loyalties might fade without Chávez's spirit. It is a political drama that turns off many Venezuelans who have found more stability in the United States. Advertising executive Otto Scheuren sums it up this way:
"The country where you were born is like your mother: you cannot choose your mother. Regardless, you love her very much. But the country where you choose to live is like your wife—you do get to choose whom you marry. And I feel that, in my case, Venezuela is my home country, my mother—but I just can't live with her anymore.'
Scheuren said that he has no plans to return to Venezuela, even if Chávez isn't there anymore.
"We're walking forward with a broken compass,' Scheuren said. He added that it will take a lot more than new presidential elections for Venezuela to find a political path that feels right to him again.