Chávez: For better, for worse

By Risa Grais-Targow and Daniel Kerner

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is currently recuperating in a Cuban hospital after emergency surgery on a pelvic abscess. Or so goes the official story. However, in the three weeks since the June 10 operation, rumors have metastasized into full-blown speculation that he is in critical condition (perhaps with prostate cancer) and that Venezuela is on the verge of having to find a successor to the man who has run the country for 12 years.

Chávez's uncharacteristic quiet since the surgery has been feeding the rumors. With the exception of several tweets and a call into a local television show immediately following his surgery, Chávez has maintained complete silence. Also contributing to the uncertainty has been mixed messages from his close associates. Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolas Maduro recently said Chávez was "fighting for his health" while Vice President Elias Jaua downplayed the severity of his illness. If Chávez remains absent during the upcoming July 5 independence day celebrations, it will confirm that his health situation is grave.

If Chávez is indeed seriously ill, a number of scenarios present themselves, all of which result in greatly heightened short-term political and economic uncertainty. If he is forced to step down in the near term or if he abandons the 2012 presidential race, his Chavista movement will face significant challenges. There is no clear successor. Influential figures, such as Jaua (next in line if Chávez were to die or resign) or Maduro, lack popular appeal. Others, such as Finance Minister Jorge Giordani or PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez, strongly influence particular sectors but lack his political skills or clout. Interestingly, Chávez's younger brother Adan has ramped up both his revolutionary rhetoric and his public visibility, suggesting that he may be preparing himself for a transition. In the end, however, Chavismo's political survival would be in question if Chávez leaves the scene.

Infighting could also undermine policymaking. Venezuela faces serious policy issues. The country's electricity grid is failing and power supply does not meet demand, and the oil sector desperately needs additional investment in order to boost production (the government's principal revenue source). Squabbles could also distract from delivering on social programs, the cornerstone of the movement's popularity.

All of this is, however, potentially good news for the opposition. The opposition has been struggling to establish a united front ahead of what was already shaping up a tight election. If Chávez is out of the running, the opposition would have a better chance of winning. More importantly, if they were to win, they would have an easier time managing the transition than if Chávez were to lose the race.

Risa Grais-Targow is an associate with Eurasia Group's Latin America practice. Daniel Kerner is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.