Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Hugo Chávez is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba. And while he was recovering, his party swept state elections in Venezuela.
Now joining us to talk about this is Gregory Wilpert. Gregory between the years of 2000 and 2008 lived in Venezuela. He taught at the Central University of Venezuela. He also founded Venezuelanalysis.com. And he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. He now lives in New York. His wife is the consul general of Venezuela in New York.
Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
Gregory Wilpert, Political Analyst and Author: Thanks for inviting me, Paul.
Jay: So let’s start with, first of all, what do we know about the health of President Chávez, and then we can talk about some of the implications of this.
Wilpert: Well, we know that Chávez returned to—well, actually, he went to Cuba a couple of weeks ago for a special treatment that was supposed to be a kind of an imposed radiation therapy treatment, and he was there for an awfully long time, almost three weeks. Then he came back last week for just two days, or three days, maybe, and announced to the world and to Venezuelans, much to their surprise, I think, that he had to return to Cuba again because new cancer cells were discovered, and that he would have to have surgery again.
And the big announcement, I guess—I mean, many people actually kind of suspected that it might have come back because he was in Cuba for so long, but the big announcement was that he was designating a successor. This was the first time that he had done that. He had previously already named his foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, as the new vice president, but now officially declared that if he should not survive this most recent surgery, then Nicolás Maduro should be his designated successor in election for the presidency.
Jay: Now, where are we now in terms of the process? He was supposed to be inaugurated January 10. I mean, it’s pretty—I think it’s not just unlikely; he’s not going to be there on January 10, to all indications. But is that, like, a specific day, if he’s not there, then they have to pass things on? Or as long as he’s alive in Cuba they can put off the inauguration day?
Wilpert: Well, it’s a bit of a controversial constitutional issue. It seems like the Constitution says that if the president is not sworn into office on the designated date, that is, January 10, then the president of the National Assembly would take over as president and elections would have to be held within 30 days. So I think that’s the most common interpretation of the Constitution. Now, there’s some debate about this, but I think that’s the most likely scenario if Chávez is not back by January 10.
Jay: So the issue then becomes is he recovering. Now, the reports right now is that the surgery was successful. I mean, that could mean, you know, he’s alive for the—. There’s no sense of what the prognosis is for that. I mean, I guess in theory they could put him in an ambulance airplane and fly him in to get inaugurated and fly him back to Cuba again. But what—is there any sense of how this is going to unfold?
Wilpert: Yes, there’s even been rumors that maybe the Supreme Court and key members of the National Assembly could fly to Cuba and inaugurate him there, but that’s just a rumor.
Jay: There’s nothing in the Constitution that says this has to be done in Venezuela.
Wilpert: No, not specifically. So, in other words, if the officials were in Cuba, it in theory could happen there. I think—but most people seem to think that it’s unlikely and that indeed Chávez will be leaving the stage soon. That is kind of the sense that I have and most people that I’ve spoken to seem to have.
Jay: That one way or the other, assuming he survives, that he’s in for a fairly, you know, long recovery and not in a position to be the president, so that Maduro will likely take over and that there will be elections. You think that’s the likely scenario now.
Wilpert: Yes. I mean, the only way to avoid that is if he were somehow to manage to do the inauguration, whether in Cuba or in Venezuela, and then the National Assembly could still give him a temporary leave of absence for 90 days, which could be renewed for another 90 days. So up to six months this recovery period could actually be extended. But given what we know about cancer, if it’s come back a third time, the recovery chances are quite low. It means that it’s possibly metastasized or something like that.
Jay: Yeah, that’s what it seems. Now, this is all happening in the context where he just won a fairly decisive victory as president. But the Socialist Party, his party, just won a thumping victory in the state elections, 20 out of 23 governorships. So talk a little bit about the context of all this, ’cause when you read now about it, the opposition seems to be in complete disarray.
Wilpert: Yes, it does, although it has one silver lining, which is that its presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, won a pretty substantial victory in his state. He won reelection as governor of the state of Miranda. And so that means that he would probably be able to run as the presidential candidate again, assuming that there’s nobody who will challenge him, which I kind of doubt that would happen. So in that sense it still maintains its unity, despite the defeat that it has suffered in these regional elections. They lost basically something like four governorships and won a total of only three out of 23 state governorships. So that’s a serious loss for them, especially considering that they lost the largest state in Venezuela, which is called Zulia, where they had traditionally always won. And this time they lost it to a former or close adviser of Chávez’s, Francisco Arias Cárdenas.
Jay: And that’s the state where most of the oil industry is based.
Wilpert: Yes, indeed. So it’s an important state strategically and in terms of population and of its location, yes.
Jay: And how do you explain that they won this time when it’s been traditionally an opposition stronghold?
Wilpert: Well, I think there are a variety of explanations. One of them is that the elections were to a large extent local. That is, the opposition had tended to run the incumbents who had lost a lot of their popularity because they’ve been governing for a long time. So that was one problem. At least three major states where the opposition had governors, they were running for the third time or fourth time, and they just had worn out their welcome. So that was one factor.
Another factor is that it’s close to the holiday season. Many people have gone on vacation, and particularly people who tend to vote for the opposition tend to travel more and might not have been around. So that’s another factor. And then, of course, there’s a sympathy vote for Chávez, which I think was also an important factor. So all of that combined was not very good for—was not good for the opposition.
Jay: And in general the victory of the Socialist Party seems to be, you would think, a vote in support of Maduro, in the sense this vote takes place with people well aware of Chávez’s condition. And they know Maduro is going to lead the party, Socialist Party, after—be the candidate afterwards, after Chávez, yet they vote for all the state governments this way. So it sounds like Venezuela’s ready for Maduro to become president.
Wilpert: Perhaps, although I think, you know, each candidate will be evaluated on their own merits. And so we’ll have to see if it translates to Maduro himself. I mean, I think, of course, there would be a significant boost for Maduro just because Chávez designated him as a successor, but he doesn’t have the same level of charisma that Chávez had. And so it will be a closer race, I think, for him to win the presidential election than it was for Chávez.
Jay: And in terms of policy and approach to the Venezuelan economy and foreign policy and such, does Maduro have a distinct point of view of his own? Or is he essentially going to be a successor to the policies of Chávez?
Wilpert: Well, indications are that he would be a successor of Chávez’s policies. He would definitely follow in his footsteps in almost every way, since he was such a loyal follower previously.
Jay: And in terms of the control of now 20 out of 23 state governments, what does that mean, going forward, in terms—assuming Maduro does win? Then what does that mean in terms of the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution?
Wilpert: Well, it is certainly a boost if, let’s say, Maduro were to win, because for one thing, not having these state governorships in opposition hands denies them opportunities to build local leadership, or even national leadership, and that’s certainly something that they’ve been lacking all along in these Chávez years. And so that’s certainly going to make it more difficult for the future.
And, of course, then also it’s clear that, you know, having governors of the same party as the president also helps in terms of implementing the policies. The governors have substantial amount of power in Venezuela and can create obstacles for the implementation of national policies, and they can certainly help if they’re on the same party.
So in terms of those two factors, both, you know, as terms of politically, political strategy, it’s going to be a big boost, but also in terms of policy implementation.
Jay: Alright. Well, thanks very much, Greg. We’ll talk more soon when we know whether there’s going to be another election soon in Venezuela. Thanks for joining us.
Wilpert: Sure. My pleasure.
Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.