Last week, Hugo Chávez’s inauguration came and went without Chávez being present for it. While opponents had argued that the constitution demanded he be present for his inauguration, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that Chavez did not have to be present for his inauguration under the principle of continuity. Effectively, the court said that, if an incoming president is unable to assume office, the previous president can continue until his successor is able, and as Chávez was technically the “incoming” president succeeding himself, he could remain in office without attending his inauguration. As Greg Weeks points out, this ruling does seem to open a new set of questions regarding presidencies and the Venezuelan constitution. Vice President Nicolás Maduro continues to serve as the de facto president and government officials continue to consult with Chávez while he convalesces in Cuba. Whether this is temporary or a matter of grooming him for an office he is inevitably going to assume, possibly soon, is unclear; first, reports emerged that Chávez may not be in a coma, followed by reports that he is recovering from a lung infection. Still, given that this is his fourth trip to Cuba for cancer-related treatments, and the general secrecy around his recent condition and the lack of any sort of appearance suggests to opponents and supporters alike that his health is far from optimal. Nonetheless, the opposition still seems to be unprepared to provide a strong candidate even while it prepares to continue its legal challenge, even while the government discourages opponents from getting too “vocal.”
In the meantime, many Venezuelans and international leaders gathered in Caracas last Thursday, where a rally for support for Chávez took place, with supporters pledging to defend Chavez, his presidency, and the reforms he has accomplished over the last fourteen years. And while many of the Latin American leaders who attended the replacement-inauguration/rally expressed similar sentiments, the humble Uruguayan President Eduardo Mujica recommended to the crowds that Venezuelans must prepare to continue his reforms even after Chávez is one day gone.
I think Mujica’s comments on the need to prepare for a post-Chávez era, combined with the popular support he received last Thursday, provide a fascinating and tantalizing hint at where Venezuela may be heading. As I’ve mentioned before, the question of how (or even if) Chávez would try to institutionalize his Bolivarian Revolution beyond his own person was a real question the moment he was re-elected, a question that has only gained greater urgency in the recent recurrence of his cancer-related illness. Though it could be a flash in the pan, it seems that the people of Venezuela themselves are prepared to play a role in institutionalizing those reforms one way or another, perhaps even moreso than Chávez was. Certainly, they cannot do it themselves – should Chávez be unable to return to office again (and again, though it may seem unlikely right now, nothing is terribly clear or definite), the succession issue will matter. Maduro’s ascendance after the election, and his ongoing communications with Chávez, seems like a possible path to institutionalize those reforms, but they will matter little if the people are not willing to participate. Yet that many people continue to support not only Chávez but the reforms he implemented even while public talk of his eventual departure (symbolized by Mujica’s address) suggests that they may provide the popular force needed to ensure continuity. Likewise, even Chávez’s opponents may be playing a role in ensuring future continuity; if they continue to be unable to overcome their differences and create a compelling message to the people, rather than relying on somebody who is “prepared” but has no actual policy platform that will appeal to a majority of Venezuelans, then we may see some degree of continuity as people look between Chávez’s heirs and his opponents and end up choosing those who speak directly to their concerns. Once more, while nothing is certain, the events and comments surrounding the “inauguration” last week may actually indicate how institutionalization of Chávez’s reforms could happen, even while he is ironically as removed from physically governing as he has ever been since taking office in 1999. It will definitely be a situation in flux in the coming months, and one worth continuing to watch.