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Chavez health problems plunge Venezuela's future into doubt

By Arthur Brice, CNN
updated 10:35 PM EDT, Tue May 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chavez's participation in this year's election is not certain
  • The military is seen as benefitting from a power vacuum
  • Two men linked to the military and drug trafficking gain top posts

(CNN) -- Uncertainty rules in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez battles a cancer some believe has turned fatal.

As Chavez shuttles between Venezuela and Cuba, where he is receiving treatment for a type of cancer he has declined to identify, speculation grows whether he'll be in shape to campaign for the Oct. 7 presidential election. Or if he will even be alive by then.

With no clear successor in line because Chavez has not designated one, analysts see political and military leaders and others with an eye on power quietly maneuvering to take over, improve their lot or simply stay out of prison.

"People are obviously positioning themselves," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue policy institute. "Chavez is very well-placed to announce his successor. But he really doesn't want to name his successor because it would be an indication that not only is he a lame duck, but he's a goner."

"This is like a kaleidoscope," said Roger Noriega, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003.

It's not a well-defined picture, but the outlines are beginning to form.

Two Chavez allies take top posts

The military -- the power base from which Chavez came into prominence 20 years ago -- saw two strong allies named to top government posts four months ago. Whether the military forced those moves on Chavez or he made the appointments of his own volition as a way to further his socialist political movement is unclear and a point of debate among analysts.

The fact remains, though, that Diosdado Cabello, a longtime Chavez cohort who was part of a failed coup attempt by then-army colonel Chavez in February 1992, amassed tremendous power in January when Chavez named him president of the National Assembly.

Chavez quells rumors about death

Chavez had already appointed Cabello a month earlier to the No. 2 spot in another significant power base -- the president's political organization, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, commonly known as PSUV, its Spanish acronym.

The second major appointment also occurred in January, when Chavez named Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as minister of defense, the top military post in the nation. Rangel Silva's appointment drew particular attention because the U.S. Treasury Department designated him as a drug kingpin in 2008. U.S. officials say Rangel Silva and other Venezuelan officials helped the guerrilla organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ship cocaine through Venezuela.

Although Chavez and Rangel Silva deny the accusations, the military leader is among a group of Venezuelan commanders often referred to as "the narcogenerals." Other military leaders identified as narcogenerals by the Treasury Department include Army Gen. Cliver Alcala, who is commander of Venezuela's Fourth Armored Division, and Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal, whom Chavez removed as intelligence chief in December.

In addition, former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte, who defected to the United States in April and is reported to be collaborating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, named in a recent TV interview two other former generals he said are drug kingpins. He named Nestor Reverol, director of the National Antidrug Office, and Raul Isais Baduel, a former minister of defense who publicly broke with Chavez in 2007 and is now in prison on corruption charges.

The Miami Herald also reported, citing an unnamed source, that Aponte Aponte has identified Cabello as another top official working with drug traffickers. U.S. intelligence cables made public by Wikileaks also linked Cabello to drug trafficking.

None of these officials have been charged with any crimes and all have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Noriega and other observers have said the appointments of Cabello and Rangel Silva have turned Venezuela into a narcostate.

"Cabello and Rangel Silva are a fact of life," Noriega said. "They have been since January. The military and the narcogenerals got their way in who was going to lead this thing."

Others are not so sure, saying Chavez just wanted to consolidate power in the national assembly and the military before the election.

"He didn't want to have to look back as he moves forward," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuela specialist and professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

"I think Chavez is still fully in control," Tinker Salas said. "I don't think there's a power struggle behind the scenes."

Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political consultant and professor at Venezuela's Universidad Catolica Andres Bello y Simon Bolivar, basically agrees.

"It's an issue that depends greatly on Chavez," Carrasquero said. "Chavez will be the first to have a word."

Maneuvering comes as Chavez fights for life

The possible political maneuvering comes as Chavez fights for his life against a cancer he disclosed last year only after persistent published reports said the president was ill with the disease. Little is known about his illness and treatment because Chavez has refused to provide any details. Press accounts, though, by a handful of correspondents who say they have access to the medical records or to people connected with the case, paint a grim prognosis.

Among those reporting on Chavez's condition are Venezuelan columnist Nelson Bocaranda and Venezuelan doctor Jose Rafael Marquina, who practices in Florida and has no direct connection with the case but says he has colleagues who know what is happening. Reporters from the Spanish ABC newspaper and the Brazilian O Globo daily publication also have filed reports on Chavez's condition.

According to these reports, thought to be reliable but which CNN has been unable to verify, Chavez's illness -- initially diagnosed as prostate cancer in January 2011 -- has spread to his colon and other internal organs and to some bones.

Although Cabello and other top Venezuelan officials maintain Chavez is beating the disease, Chavez fueled speculation last month when he broke down at a Holy Thursday mass and prayed for a cure.

"Give me life even if it's ... painful life," Chavez said, weeping. "I don't care. Christ, give me your crown. Give it to me. I will bleed. ... Give me life because I still have things to do for these people.

"Don't take me yet," he implored.

Chavez is seeking that medical cure in Cuba, traveling to the island more than 10 times since last year. In sum, he has spent more than one-third of his time in Cuba since the beginning of this year.

Chavez returns for more treatment

Noriega believes the Cuban doctors are acting at the behest of Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, Chavez's main allies. The Castros want Chavez to manage the succession to make sure the next Venezuelan leader will not cut off the estimated 100,000 barrels of heavily discounted oil Cuba receives every day. Those subsidies amount to an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion a year.

"He realizes that the succession battle is going on right now," said Noriega. "His priority is consolidating power within the Chavismo movement and making sure Chavismo retains power.

"The power struggle is more important to him now than even the election. And that says it all."

Cabello, the 48-year-old National Assembly president, and defense secretary Rangel Silva appear to have stepped into this possible power vacuum.

"I think it's over," said Noriega. "My impression is that Chavez is yesterday's news in the power struggle. I don't think he can make any radical changes at this juncture."

Cabello, who has strong military backing, in particular seems strongly poised to take over with Rangel Silva's support.

"Clearly, a single faction has taken the lead," the Stratfor intelligence firm said in a January 25 report.

The Eurasia Group, a private global political risk research and consulting firm, said in a report this week that if Chavez "is forced to step aside before the election, the president will likely wait until the last minute to name a successor."

"The diverse factions within Chavismo will make it difficult to agree on a successor, but the most likely alternatives appear to be National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a businessman who is closely tied to the military, and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro," The Eurasia report said.

A clearer picture should emerge this summer, Tinker Salas said.

"We'll have to see in a few weeks, when the campaign is fully engaged, what role he plays," the professor said. "If he starts sending out surrogates, he's in a world of trouble."

Succession scenarios are varied

In the event of Chavez's death, the Venezuelan constitution stipulates that Vice President Elias Jaua would assume power. But few analysts expect that to happen, offering a series of scenarios -- from a military coup to Chavez naming Cabello or Maduro vice president before he dies. Under the constitution, the president can change vice presidents at will.

Cabello and Chavez have had a complicated relationship since the Chavez-led 1992 coup attempt that landed both of them in prison for two years. After their release, Cabello became part of Chavez's political movement, which culminated with Chavez winning the presidential election in 1998 and assuming office in February 1999. He has been re-elected twice since then.

Cabello has held a series of top-level posts during Chavez's 13-year rule, including a three-month stint as vice president in 2002. Cabello was even president for one day in April 2002 when Chavez was temporarily deposed in a short-lived coup attempt. Cabello made a statement that he would take over the office until Chavez could resume his duties and quickly relinquished power when Chavez was released from his brief confinement.

Two weeks later, Chavez replaced him as vice president.

The relationship took a turn for the worse in recent years when Chavez reassigned Cabello from a top post, accusing him in front of a national TV audience of being incompetent and corrupt.

Noriega says Chavez demoted Cabello because he had gotten too powerful. Cabello also fell victim to a purge of the president's party, the PSUV, when Chavez replaced close allies with Cuban-backed ideologues.

Noriega also believes Chavez took these actions at the behest of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chavez's ideological hero and mentor.

"He had amassed so much money that he was a rival for influence," Noriega said. "Castro started putting people like Jaua in power."

Cabello suffered another political setback in 2008 when he lost re-election to the governorship of Miranda state to Henrique Capriles Radonski, now the opposition candidate to Chavez in this year's presidential election.

But Cabello survived, most recently becoming head of the ministry of public works and housing and also of the nation's telecommunications commission.

And he's become convenient to Chavez and the top military echelon.

"Now [Chavez] needs a tough guy who's been with him in the struggle to consolidate power," Noriega said in a telephone interview. "It's a decision imposed by the narcogenerals as an insurance policy for them."

An engineer by education and training at the nation's military academy, Cabello represents a pragmatic, nationalist segment of the PSUV, which Chavez formed in 2007.

The PSUV is widely considered to be made up mostly of hard-core socialist ideologues favored by the Castro brothers. Vice President Jaua belongs to that wing of the party, as does the president's brother, Adan Chavez. Foreign Minister Maduro is also seen as belonging to that group.

Chavez seemed to shunt Maduro and Jaua aside late last year when he announced they would be leaving their posts to run for office in states that have been opposition strongholds: Jaua would be a candidate for Miranda governor and Maduro would vie for the governorship of Carabobo state. A third ideologue, interior minister Tarek el Aisssami would run for the Tachira state governorship, Chavez announced. Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa, who was replaced as defense minister by Rangel Silva, would run for governor in Nueva Esparta.

Jaua, apparently still jockeying for power, is said to be resisting a run for governor, Venezuelan columnist Bocaranda reported in March. Maduro also is believed not to want to leave his current post, Bocaranda said.

Unconfirmed reports in the past few days by Bocaranda and others said Chavez was prepared to name Maduro as the new vice president.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, was widely assumed to be a front-runner to replace Chavez because of their apparent close relationship. Maduro is often seen in the front row of Chavez's news conferences or accompanying the president on his trips to Cuba for medical treatment.

There are those who still see him as politically viable.

"Maduro cannot be ruled out," Noriega said. "He has exceeded expectations as foreign minister."

Maduro also could prove useful to Cabello and Rangel Silva, particularly in a figurehead role.

"If Cabello and Rangel Silva resort to dirty work to hold things together, Maduro is a guy they can bring in to give a veneer of respectability to the international community," Noriega said, calling it a "junta kind of arrangement."

The Inter-American Dialogue's Hakim also sees the possibility of a civilian figurehead president if Chavez should step down, "with Cabello and Rangel Silva the powers behind the scene."

There's no doubt, analysts agree, that the narcogenerals cannot afford to expose themselves to criminal prosecution under a civilian government that is not friendly to them.

"They're military people," Noriega said. "They're all about holding on to power at any consequences -- and they're going to do that."

Rangel Silva seemed to indicate in a November 2010 interview that the military would not recognize an opposition victory this year.

"The hypothesis [of an opposition government] is difficult," he said. "It would mean selling the country. The people won't accept that. The armed forces won't, and the people even less so."

Rangel Silva later said his comment had been misinterpreted and vowed in an interview with the Univision TV network this year that "we will recognize whoever wins the Oct. 7 elections."

But some observers see the possibility of a coup if Chavez were to die, become incapacitated or lose the election.

Chavez's appointments of Cabello and Rangel Silva "confirm his regime's descent into militant narcoterrorism and increases the possibility of a coup d'etat by a military junta," senior fellow Vanessa Neumann of the independent, nonprofit Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote in January.

Cabello would be part of that scenario, she said.

"Cabello commands far more respect and loyalty from the military than Chavez," Neumann wrote.

Andres Oppenheimer, a noted Latin American journalist and a contributor to CNN en Español, says he sees three possible scenarios in the months ahead: nothing changes; Chavez names a successor; or there's a military intervention if Chavez is incapacitated or dies.

"The Venezuelan military would take power with the excuse of stopping a wave of violence," Oppenheimer wrote in a February column.

"Chavez's generals -- some of whom, such as Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, have been accused by the United States of being involved in narcotrafficking, while others fear investigations for corruption if the opposition takes power -- are the ones who would have the most to lose if Chavez's regime falls apart," said Oppenheimer.

Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled Cuban journalist and also a CNN en Español contributor, says he too sees the possibility of the military taking over. But, he said, some Venezuelan officers have told him privately that not everyone in the military would go along with a coup.

That assessment seems widely shared.

Tinker Salas, the California professor, points out that "the military is not a unified group."

"They would have problems within their own military ranks," he said. "There are factions within the military."

Noriega also sees the same dynamic at work.

"The military institutionalists, who are just run-of-the-mill corrupt, will say, 'We have to do what the constitution says. We won't let you cancel an election,' " Noriega said.

Hakim, the president emeritus at the Inter-American Dialogue, used almost the same language.

"The military has institutional interest," he said. "They'll say, 'We're just not going to go along with this.' "

A report by The Economist in April 2011 noted that a recently retired military dissident said 10% of the officer corps unconditionally supports Chavez, 20% are constitutionalists and the rest will do whatever is in their best interest.

The military also would face deep divisions if called upon to fire on Venezuelan citizens.

"The military will be hard-pressed to use massive repression against people on the street," Noriega said. "If it came to using weapons of war, that would cause a split."

And if the military were to take over, Hakim believes it would be for a short time.

"The era of the military occupying power for any period of time has really passed," he said in a telephone interview. "I would be very surprised with a military government for more than a transitional period."

Venezuela would be isolated from the international community, Hakim said, and neighboring countries like Brazil and Colombia would be concerned that the instability would cross their borders.

But, he added, "the military will play a big role in the succession. There's no other institution that occupies that space."

Noriega believes Cabello and Rangel Silva could go either way -- with an election or a coup, depending on which is more convenient.

"The elections are, from their standpoint, expendable," he said. "On the other hand, if they believe they can add a patina of legitimacy, they will hold them. They're going to be hard-pressed to make a legitimacy argument with a narco kingpin in power."

Cuba may play a role

Then there is the question of the Cubans. In exchange for cheap oil, Cuba has sent 20,000 doctors to Venezuela and thousands more to work in Venezuela's ministries, particularly in agriculture and the military. U.S. intelligence reports released by Wikileaks and analyses by the Stratfor firm say Cubans also play a large role in Venezuela's intelligence and security services.

The significance of Cuba's interest became clear to many in January 2010 when one of Cuba's top generals, Ramiro Valdes, went to Venezuela, ostensibly to help with the nation's electrical needs. Many Chavez critics, though, pointed out that as Cuba's interior minister Valdes oversaw the nation's secret police and developed a reputation for his ruthless pursuit of dissidents.

Reports in Venezuela by the independent, pro-opposition Globovision television network say that cables from the U.S. Embassy released by Wikileaks reveal that Cuban spies keep Chavez informed over the actions of opposition political figures as well as murmurs within the military barracks and any potential signs of disloyalty within his socialist cadres.

In addition, the cables reportedly talk about how Cuban agents have infiltrated the military "at virtually all levels" and have led purges to rid the armed forces of potential dissidents.

All this to say that some analysts see Cuba as having the means by which to try to influence the succession. So who would the Castro brothers like in power? Analysts say certainly Adan Chavez, the president's brother, who is seen as a hard-core socialist ideologue. Cuba also favors Jaua, the former student radical who the Castros have mentored into power, Noriega and others say. And don't count out Maduro, either.

All this relies on either Chavez naming a successor to run in his place or, if he dies without doing so, with Cabello and Rangel Silva anointing someone to take his spot on the ballot. Cabello seems precluded from running himself because he is not well-liked by the Chavista base. And he's already lost once to the 39-year-old opposition candidate, Capriles.

"Cabello is not the most popular figure in the PSUV," Tinker Salas said

Polls indicate that although Chavez still has strong backing from his supporters, other possible successors don't seem to generate that kind of enthusiasm. A February poll by the Datanalisis firm showed Jaua with 15.7% support among militant PSUV members. Maduro had 9.8% support, el Aissami had 4.9% and Cabello had 2.8%.

Chavez's brother, Adan, had 8% support and is seen as another possible successor.

"The Cubans want to try to shoehorn Adan Chavez back into the scenario," Noriega said. "He's supposed to be a very hard-nosed guy."

That might be a tough sell for Cabello and Rangel Silva, though.

"When Adan was being groomed initially, it didn't sell with the military," said Noriega. "He wasn't one of them."

Adan Chavez also is seen as lacking his brother's drawing power.

"He has an open line to the president but doesn't have his charisma or his broad appeal," Tinker Salas said.

"But don't rule Adan out, because he is an ideologue and the Cubans are behind him," Noriega said. "Adan will be able to say, 'Vote for a Chavez.' And that's pretty damn significant. But he's not a warm and fuzzy figure. He's kind of clumsy. He's OK as a communicator."

Anyone named Chavez cannot be discounted, other analysts say.

"Adan Chavez has the Chavez name and the Chavez legacy," Tinker Salas said.

Carrasquero, the Venezuelan professor, also sees Adan Chavez as a viable candidate. And he also mentioned another possible candidate named Chavez -- the president's daughter, Maria Gabriela.

"She recently made a kind of announcement," Carrasquero said. "She basically said, 'Here I am. I have the same values as my father.' "

Noriega also touts Maduro's strengths as a possible candidate.

"Maduro is more liked," Noriega said. "He's an emotionally intelligent guy. My guess is they would go with Maduro. He's a bonafide working-class guy who would be able to reach out."

But he needs to convince Cabello and Rangel Silva that he can win, Noriega said.

And if Chavez is too ill to stand as the candidate, he will listen to his military backers, Carrasquero said.

"Maduro and Jaua are loyal to Chavez," he said, "but Chavez will give more weight to the military. He has a long relationship -- a sentimental relationship -- with the military."

Chavez also will listen to one other person, Carrasquero said.

"Chavez only pays attention to Fidel Castro," he said. "He does not allow anyone near him to tell him what to do or who has a different opinion."

Heavy-handed Cuban meddling might backfire, though, because there have been published reports of strong resentment among rank-and-file military against what many see as undue intrusiveness by the foreigners. Cabello and Rangel Silva would have to be mindful not to lose support from below. Chavez, after all, was but a mere lieutenant colonel when he staged his 1992 coup attempt.

The Cubans may only have the power to suggest and manipulate as best they can.

"I don't think they have the capacity to dictate," said Tinker Salas. "I don't think the PSUV would stand for that. I don't think the Venezuelan people would stand for that."

There's at least one more factor at play, and the Cubans are seen as having their hand in that too.

InSight Crime, a Washington-based research and analysis firm that focuses on Latin America, recently highlighted how pro-Chavez militant armed groups have flourished in Venezuela in recent years. Those heavily armed civilians could pose a major threat to stability in Venezuela, potentially leading to an insurrection, InSight says.

"Chavez has been arming and training as many as 150,000 highly politicized civilian militiamen since 2009," the firm's Geoffrey Ramsey wrote in a March 22 report. "A 2011 law put them under the direct control of the president's office, but the vast majority will doubtlessly refuse to serve under any leader but Chavez."

The Economist magazine said last year there are 30,000 armed militiamen and women.

Some observers say the Cubans -- and their perceived point men, Adan Chavez and Jaua -- could unleash these militias in an attempt to take over.

"It's a real threat to any source of government to have thousands of people with arms," Noriega said. "I have no doubts that some Cubans would use violent means to deal with Venezuelans."

But Tinker Salas says he doesn't think the militias have that kind of power.

"They're still in an incipient stage," he said. "They have a role within the PSUV, but not in Venezuela as a whole. I don't think they would operate too far afield."

This is where many observers see Venezuela today -- powerful men trying to bend the arc of history because they believe their president's life may be slipping out of the hands of doctors and into the hands of God. How it will end up, no one knows.

"Whatever happens in Venezuela is not easily predictable," Hakim said. "It's hard to get these transitions right."

Bernard Aronson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989-1993, says this type of vacuum results from having a strong caudillo-type leader.

"You see the weaknesses of a government that's entirely personalistic instead of institutional and constitutional," he told CNN.

Noriega doesn't see any personalities stepping up to fill that void, particularly with Venezuela's vast corruption, political polarization and weakened democratic institutions.

A report in late 2011 by the independent, nonpartisan Transparency International organization ranked Venezuela's perceived level of corruption as No. 172 out of 182 nations. Only Haiti, ranked 175, scored worse in the Western Hemisphere.

Similarly, the Democracy Index 2011, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Venezuela as the 97th most democratic nation in the world out of a possible 167 countries.

Venezuelans have been buffeted by rapidly growing inflation, a slow economic recovery from the global recession and food shortages. Cabello and Rangel are not the men to lead the country through that turmoil, Noriega said

"How sustainable is a narcostate in Venezuela if they don't have the bureaucratic capability to run the country?" Noriega asked. "They have 20 plates spinning on sticks. A macho man is not going to get them through this. None of them have Chavez's charisma or authority."

The transition will indeed be tricky, Aronson agrees.

"That's obviously a dangerous situation," he said. "Whether any of them will have command of institutions like Chavez had and wield them is an open question."

It's a question on the minds of many Venezuelans, powerful and humble alike. Uncertainty rules.

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