In Venezuela, Concern for the Health of President Hugo Chavez and Questions About Succession

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. In six days, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is supposed to be sworn in for this fourth term in office. It's unlikely that he'll make it back to Caracas by then. Chavez has been in Cuba ever since undergoing emergency cancer surgery on December 11. Officials in Venezuela have been tight lipped all along, but today, the country's information minister admitted that Chavez is suffering from a respiratory deficiency caused by a severe lung infection. Reporter Phil Gunson is in Caracas. He notes that Venezuela's constitution is ambiguous about what should happen if Chavez isn't sworn in on January 10.

Phil Gunson: A reasonable reading of the constitution suggest that if Chavez is unable to attend the swearing in ceremony then the parliament has to decide really whether this is a temporary or a permanent absence. If he's temporarily absent, then in theory the chairman of parliament should stand in for him while he recovers. If he's permanently absent, the chairman of parliament still stands, but we move immediately within 30 days for a presidential election.

Werman: Right, tell us who is the head of parliament?

Gunson: Well, the current head of parliament is a man called Diosdado Cabello. He's a former army lieutenant, took part in Chavez' coupe attempt in 1992, regarded as in some respects, a hardliner, although not so much on the ideological front. He's very bellicose belligerent man, unlike the other main contender for the leadership, if you'd like, who is Nicolas Maduro, the vice president and foreign minister, who is the man that before Christmas Chavez named as his successor, should he be unable to resume the presidency. There's a small complication here as well, which is that tomorrow the new parliamentary session begins and the first business on the parliamentary agenda is to elect the parliamentary leadership for the next session. It's possible that although I think it's unlikely, that Diosdado Cabello, the man I mentioned, might lose that job. But I think it's more than likely that he will stay there, among other things because the Chavista movement needs to demonstrate that it's unified, that it's united.

Werman: So if Hugo Chavez doesn't show up for one reason or another, how much time does the government then have to hold an election and get someone installed in the presidency who's not just a placeholder?

Gunson: Well, if Chavez is deemed to be temporarily absent, he can in theory be absent for a total of 180 days. After 90 days there has to be a decision taken by parliament as to whether to renew it or not, but this could in theory go on for months if Chavez survives. On the other hand, if he's deemed to be permanently absent, permanently incapacitated or dead actually, then there has to be an election within 30 days. In those circumstances the government is better placed. They've just come from a presidential election back on October, which Chavez won comfortably by 10 or 11 percentage points, and if they have a man in Nicolas Maduro, who's the clear candidate and Chavez' dying wish, if you like, that Maduro should be the next president, the opposition on the other hand, they come from that defeat, from a defeat in December as well in regional elections, and they're obviously not as well prepared as the government in the sense that they, like the rest of us, don't really know what's going on with Chavez' health, whereas the government does.

Werman: Phil, what is the mood in Caracas right now with the ailing president in Cuba?

Gunson: Well, it's obviously the main topic of conversation and I think the best way to sum it up is probably nervousness, uncertainty, a lot of deep concern, obviously, on the part of his supporters in particular. Chavez is a very exceptional politician. He has a very deep emotional bond with millions of Venezuelans who feel his absence and his illness as if it was that of a family member. So even beyond the ranks of the Chavista moment, people are very concerned because we don't really know what's going to happen. Almost any scenario is possible.

Werman: We've been speaking with freelance journalist Phil Gunson in Caracas about what next in the protocol of succession for the ailing president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Phil, thanks so much.

Gunson: You're welcome, thank you.