Chavez' Illness Opens Door to Succession Issue

Hugo Chavez' illness comes at a time that his regime is facing problems at home and abroad and has no orderly procedures for a succession.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 00:17

Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez

It is still premature to speculate on the seriousness of the illness necessitating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' prolonged stay in Cuba for medical treatment.

The Twitter statements by Chavez are suspect as he is used to appropriating state television at the drop of a hat.  His silence is definitely suspect, although some in the opposition are wary that he is planning a triumphal return to Caracas once he recovers. Still the illness raised for the first time the issue of a succession crisis.

Hugo Chavez is an autocrat but Venezuela is still a semi-authoritarian country. When the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes first underwent succession crises, this occurred after the opposition forces had been totally suppressed.

This is not the case today in Venezuela. In the previous elections, the opposition actually managed to make some gains despite restrictions and was expecting to do better in this year's elections behind an attractive candidate.

Before his departure for medical reasons, Hugo Chavez was coping with high inflation, spiraling crime rates, state deficits and power outages. If he were eliminated from the picture or sidelined, this situation would pose a problem for his supporters.

They would have to decide whether to continue democratic procedures, which they could afford to do under the populist Chavez. With Chavez out of the picture, there is talk by Chavez' brother Adan about dropping the democratic façade to use the military to crush opponents of the revolution. This would have repercussions in Latin America and particularly for Chavez' allies in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru who came to power via the democratic "game".

Who would pick up the pieces in case Chavez is out of the picture. He had promised to rule until 2030. Now it looks like he will not be granted leadership longevity and there are no institutions to guarantee the orderly choice of his successor.

Another problem for Chavez is that the American administration has been moving from engagement to gritted teeth tolerance and now is starting to consider sanctions.

Initial sanctions have been imposed on the Venezuelan oil company for its assistance in circumventing the sanctions on Iran. US Secretary of State Clinton called this a warning and threatened that the sanctions could be expanded further.

The Chavez regime should be wary of the increased activity displayed by the U.S. House Foreign Relations committee. It is focused on the triangular relations between Venezuela, Iran and Syria and the suspicions that flights between Venezuela to  Middle Eastern countries are being used to shuffle terror operatives from the Middle East to Latin America and back.

The House Foreign Relations Committee held hearings last Friday during which Representative Connie Mack of Florida has called for Venezuela to be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism, prompting the treatment that goes with that notorious status. A representative of the Treasury Department reported on Venezuela's major role in funding Hizbullah.