Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro addresses the nation from Caracas. (Francisco Batista / EPA )
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made it through his fourth cancer surgery late Tuesday, but he is not expected to return to power any time soon. On Saturday, the ailing president announced in a nationally televised speech that he was traveling to Cuba for further treatment, and designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor if he were unable to return to office.
Chavez’s choice to replace him isn’t that surprising. After all, Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution established that the vice president should take over if Chavez is unable to fulfill his duties.
Maduro, who served as the country’s foreign minister until recently, is credited with helping improve relations between Venezuela and Colombia. And although he is considered a leftist, he is said to be a less polarizing figure than Chavez. His working-class roots appeal to many of Chavez's supporters. A former bus driver, Maduro went on to become a successful union organizer before joining the government.
The problem is that although Chavez has tapped Maduro to be his successor in the long run, it’s unclear who will take over in the short term. If the president, who was recently reelected, steps down before his term is officially over, Maduro would take over. But if Chavez remains in power but can’t be sworn in on Jan. 10, Maduro would not automatically take over. Instead, Diosdado Cabello, a Chavez ally and president of the National Assembly, would assume power and he would call a special election for as early as February.
Either way, it appears as though Venezuelans could be headed to the polls for the third time in less than a year. Regional and local elections are scheduled for Sunday. Chavez was reelected in October in a bruising fight against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who is now running for governor in the state of Miranda, which includes the capital city of Caracas.
Capriles is considered a likely candidate to run against Maduro if special elections are called.
One thing is clear, whether Chavez returns to power or not. He has forever changed his country. Venezuela’s old political parties, which were considered corrupt, have largely disappeared from the political landscape. And the next generation of Chavez opponents, including Capriles, while campaigning against the president, have promised to maintain some of the government’s programs for the poor.
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