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Debate: With Chávez Ailing, Venezuela’s Longstanding Divisions Threaten New Political Upheaval

Venezuela has postponed yesterdayu2019s presidential inauguration as Hugo Chu00e1vez remains hospitalized in Cuba.

Venezuela has postponed yesterday’s presidential inauguration as Hugo Chávez remains hospitalized in Cuba. The Venezuelan Supreme Court says Chávez is still president, but the opposition is calling for a caretaker government and new elections. We host a debate on Chávez’s presidency and what is next for Venezuela with Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan-born professor at Pomona College and author of the forthcoming book, “Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela and the forthcoming Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. He is also an adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Juan Gonzalez: Venezuela has postponed today’s presidential inauguration as Hugo Chávez remains hospitalized in Cuba after complications from a fourth cancer operation. The 58-year-old Chávez, who was first elected in 1998, has not been seen in public nor heard from since his surgery on December 11.

The postponement of the inauguration has set off a political crisis in Venezuela. On Wednesday, Venezuela’s top court ruled that Chávez could begin a new term today and be sworn in later before the court. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who is now in charge of the day-to-day government, praised the ruling.

VICE PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] In the name of the legitimate government of the commander president, who was re-elected by the Venezuelan people, the leader of this motherland, the government obeys the decision of the Supreme Court of Justice. Their word and their voice is sacred.

Amy Goodman: Opposition politicians in Venezuela have argued delaying President Chávez’s swearing-in for a new term leaves no one legally in charge of Venezuela once the current term ends today. They’ve called for the appointment of a caretaker president and new elections. Henrique Capriles, who lost October’s presidential election to Chávez, took aim at Venezuela’s judicial system.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: [translated] The Supreme Court decided to resolve a problem for the ruling party. So what can I now say to Venezuelans? I am an example—and excuse me for speaking in first person, but I am an example of how one must fight against a judicial system that doesn’t work.

Juan Gonzalez: Supporters of Chávez have called for a huge rally outside the presidential palace in Caracas today. Allied leaders, including Uruguay’s José Mujica, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, are expected to attend.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration has embarked on a discreet, but concerted, weeks-long diplomatic initiative to open channels of communication with the Venezuelan government in the absence of Chávez. In 2002, Chávez survived a coup that toppled him briefly. He has long asserted that that coup was orchestrated by the United States.

Amy Goodman: For more on Venezuela, we’re joined by two guests. Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, also an adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. And from Claremont, California, we’re joined by Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College, born in Venezuela, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. His new book, forthcoming, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Michael Shifter, Miguel Tinker Salas, we welcome you both to Democracy Now!Michael Shifter, talk about what isn’t happening today, the inauguration, and what you feel needs to take place, which side you take now.

Michael Shifter: Well, thank you very much.

I think that it’s not a surprise that the inauguration is not taking place today. I think that President Chávez clearly is very ill. I think there are going to be new elections. I think the government basically wants some time to figure out its strategy, to consolidate the authority of Nicolás Maduro, who is the key figure now, who I think will be the candidate of the government in the elections against Capriles. I don’t know if it’s going to take place in a month or two months, but it seems to me that that’s the scenario.

And it strikes me that the important thing in this situation are the politics. The Chávez government controls the executive, obviously, the judicial branch and also the National Assembly. So, they just—they won an election in October. They won regional elections in December. Chávez has enormous compassion—generates enormous compassion and sympathy among the Venezuelan people, so the government has the upper hand. But as we just heard, Henrique Capriles is beginning to come out and make some statements, because I think—I think people are getting ready for an election. I think the government probably has the edge at this point, but that’s the situation that we’re in.

Juan Gonzalez: And, Miguel Tinker Salas, you’ve questioned whether there is a constitutional crisis, as much of the press reporting has made out, or whether this is really more a strategy of the opposition and external opponents of the Chávez government. Could you talk about that?

Miguel Tinker Salas: Sure. I mean, if this was Panama, Costa Rica, any other country, Honduras, we would not be having this conversation. The reality is, those constitutions are very similar to the Venezuelan constitution, which clearly states in Article 231 that if the president cannot be inaugurated before the National Assembly on January 10th, he can be or she can be sworn in at a subsequent time before the Supreme Court, so that the issue is not a constitutional crisis, although I think the opposition would like to create a constitutional crisis. And we’re seeing a lot of echo of that in the national press and the international press.

The reality is that in Venezuela there is a transition, no doubt about that, but the opposition would like to strike while the iron is hot. They see Chávez weak. They see the Chávez movement possibly weak. They’ve lost two subsequent elections. And what they’re really looking for is an opportunity to expand their base of support. And the challenge for them is that they really—as they have in the past, they’ve cut their nose to spite their face. In the past, they have really engaged in a series of undemocratic actions, and they’re risking, at this point, also drawing on the sympathy vote that Chávez will have and the Chavistas will have. So I think that they’re very—in a very precarious position, but I don’t think we have a constitutional crisis in Venezuela. I think we have a series of positions that are trying to precipitate one, but I don’t see a crisis at this point.

Amy Goodman: We’re going to come back to this discussion and talk about what Hugo Chávez has meant for Venezuela over more than a decade. We’re speaking with Miguel Tinker Salas of Pomona College and Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. Stay with us.

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