Saturday, January 5, 2013

President Hugo Chavez: pushes Venezuela to the brink of Political Crisis

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Venezuela is on the brink of political crisis as rumours swirl that President Hugo Chavez is on his deathbed just days before he is due to be sworn in for his fourth successive term.

Venezuelan lawmakers will meet Saturday in a session that could shed light on what steps may be taken if Chavez is too sick to be sworn in for a new term next week.

Legislators will choose a president, two vice-presidents and other leaders of the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could end up being the interim president of Venezuela if Chavez is unable to be inaugurated on Thursday as scheduled.

Chavez hasn’t spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation in Cuba, and the latest report from his government Thursday night increased speculation that he is unlikely to be able to be sworn in for another term on Thursday.

It was the first time the government has described the lung infection as “severe,” and the strongest confirmation yet that Chavez, 58, is having serious trouble breathing after days of rumours about his condition worsening.

“Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commander Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on television Thursday night.

The government’s characterization raised the possibility that Chavez might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not give details of the president’s treatment.

But with few expecting Chavez to be well enough to return to Caracas by Thursday, the opposition is demanding government officials acknowledge the gravity of the president’s condition and the power vacuum it has created.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, general secretary of the Democratic Unity coalition, which draws together a wide spectrum of opposition parties, has called for Chavez to be temporarily replaced.

“The real truth of the situation regarding the health of the president must be told given that it is a national problem because this deals with the leader of the country,” he said. “Rumours are the offspring of misinformation and that’s where the instability begins.”

That prompted Vice-President Nicolas Maduro to accuse Aveledo of being behind “twisted campaigns” in social media aimed at subverting the government.

Nevertheless, Aveledo’s stance — avoiding calling for Chavez to step down permanently — flies in the face of how most commentators interpret the constitution, drawn up in 1999 by a constituent assembly dominated by Chavez supporters. They have said presidential elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is incapacitated in the first four years of his term, or if an elected president is unable to be sworn in.

The only difference is that in the former scenario the vice-president, Maduro, would stand in for the president until a newly elected leader takes office. In the latter, the Speaker of the Venezuelan congress would do so.

Either way, the stand-in president would hold the highest office for just one month — unless he or she also ran in and won the election.

That raises the possibility that, if Chavez can’t be sworn in, Maduro will call new elections in the next week or so — or risk plunging the country into a major political crisis.

The current Venezuelan Speaker is Diosdado Cabello, like Maduro a veteran Chavez ally. But Cabello is also seen by some analysts to be the member of Chavez’s inner circle most likely to break ranks and challenge the president’s wish that Maduro be his political heir.

Yet one person who, so far, has not demanded new elections is Henrique Capriles, the state governor who gave Chavez his toughest race yet as a Democratic Unity candidate in October’s presidential elections.

Since Chavez’s health deteriorated, the 40-year-old centrist, who won 44 per cent to Chavez’s 55 per cent, has limited himself to sending out positive messages on his Twitter account.

Barring a sudden, miraculous recovery from Chavez, it may become clear within the next week whether another presidential race is coming in February.

- With files from The Associated Press, Simeon Tegel