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Q&A with Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher: Hugo Chávez, Cancer and the Future of Venezuela

December 12, 2012

Hugo Chávez

Cicciarello-MaherWith more news breaking this week about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s ongoing battle with cancer, DrexelNow checked in with George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor in Drexel’s Department of History & Politics and a leading expert on Venezuela. He has not only studied the nation closely, but also lived and taught there.

In an interview on Tuesday—the same day that Chávez underwent surgery in Havana—Ciccariello-Maher addressed Chávez’s apparently serious health issues, what is known about his potential successor and what new leadership in Venezuela could mean for the nation, the region and the world.  

Can you start by setting the scene for us? What is the current situation in Venezuela with President Hugo Chávez and his battle against cancer?

As some folks may know, Hugo Chávez has been struggling against an undisclosed form of cancer for nearly two years. He has access to some of the best cancer treatment in the world, in Havana, Cuba, and has traveled there on and off for surgeries and stints of radiation and hyperbaric (oxygen) therapy. In the summer of 2011 the situation looked quite dire, with Chávez disappearing unexpectedly for weeks, but since then the surgeries seem to have worked and he has been visibly healthier. However, his return to Cuba last week for urgent surgery on cancerous cells raises serious concerns.

How much is known about Chávez's illness? And how much has been known previously? Were voters aware of the illness prior to the most recent election?

The form of cancer has never been disclosed, although officials have said it was located broadly in the pelvic region. Many have speculated that it is actually colon cancer, but it is difficult to tell. In a country as politically polarized as Venezuela, even the smallest details become arguments. For example, last year many opposition spokespersons were suggesting that Chávez was on his deathbed, which of course proved not to be the case. Voters were indeed aware of the illness, and while the anti-Chávez opposition attempted to capitalize on it by suggesting Chávez was unfit to continue in power, this claim found little traction, and ultimately Chávez won the elections by a sizable 11-point margin. Now that he has returned to Cuba, the opposition is again attempting to take advantage of the situation: in the case of a "permanent absence," the Constitution requires new elections within 30 days, and they are arguing that Chávez's current visit should be counted as permanent. In response, Chávez supporters have called them "vultures" and "hyenas," arguing that they have not even waited for Chávez's death before attempting to take power.

Chávez has stated that should anything happen to him, he wants Nicolas Maduro to take over as president. What is known about Maduro?

To be precise, Chávez did not need to specify who would take over if he dies suddenly: it's in the Constitution that the vice president (in this case, Maduro) takes over until elections are called. More important was Chávez's suggestion that Venezuelans then elect Maduro as president. This is his first statement on who would succeed him, although many have been awaiting some indication.

Maduro is a former union leader and high-ranking Chavista who has long been close at Chávez's side, most often in foreign relations, which he has managed for many years as foreign minister. Politically, however, the naming of Maduro as his successor raises more questions than it answers. He plays his cards very close to his chest and has never spoken out of line, which makes it very difficult to tell whether he will turn to the right (embracing Diosdado Cabello and his military loyalists) to the left (with Elías Jaua as his vice president perhaps, someone closer to social movements and with a radical history), or attempt to stay the course by balancing different social forces as carefully as possible.

Should Chávez die or fall out of power, what would this mean for stability in Venezuela and in the region? Is the U.S. watching this situation closely?

It all depends on how and when Chávez dies. If he had died suddenly without word of a successor, things would have been up for grabs and much more conflictive. Now he has named Maduro, but significant challenges remain. Specifically, Chávez won handily in October, but his margin has decreased significantly, and there's no telling whether the considerably less charismatic Maduro will be able to galvanize Chávez's poor base. If the Chavistas lose power, we could see the possibility for a civil war, since people have moved so far forward over the past 14 years that they will be unlikely to want to move backward.

The U.S. is of course watching closely. While rhetoric changed when Obama was elected, not much else has, and the Obama regime has sent more aid to the anti-Chavistas than even Bush did. Despite their best efforts, however, Chávez has remained popular, and while they would like to see him out, it is unclear whether they consider this worth a civil war that would certainly disrupt oil supplies.

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