After Chavez: The One Sentence in Venezuela's Constitution That Explains the Country's Succession Crisis

How a possible power struggle in Caracas gets resolved may come down to a very few words.

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Maduro and Cabello embrace after Cabello's reelection to the post of National Assembly chair on January 5. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

For years, Cubans have speculated -- evidently incorrectly -- that Fidel Castro's death has been covered up by his brother Raul. With state media so tightly controlled, there is no way of knowing -- but though the rumors may quiet, they never really stop.

Two spectral leftists may soon haunt the island. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba on December 10 for cancer treatments he claimed he no longer needed, the media lost insight into his condition. Media reports say he chose treatment in Cuba over a state-of-the-art Brazilian hospital so he could better control the flow of information about his condition.

Still, some details have slipped out. On January 3, outlets reported that senior Venezuelan officials had flown to Cuba to be at the ailing leader's bedside. On Tuesday night, the AP formally reported that Chavez would not attend his inauguration in Venezuela. The government is arguing that this development has no bearing on his status as president.

Death, one imagines, would. But will Chavez's lieutenants report the news of his passing when it happens? Might they keep Chavez on his ventilator -- in the barest state of life -- for as long as suits them to say, technically truthfully, that he still lives?

With both countries' leaderships close-lipped, Venezuelans themselves have no more information than the rest of us. And there may be an incentive to obscure his status, say some opposition leaders and analysts. Two of Chavez's lieutenants, they claim, are fighting for power. One of them is Chavez's publicly anointed heir, new vice-president Nicolas Maduro; the other is National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello.

The two men have made a public show of unity in recent days, but opposition leaders allege the appearance is deceiving. A January 6 report from the AP quotes opposition member Julio Borges: "'While the president is sick in Havana, they have a power conflict,' Borges said. 'That's why they are engendering this violation of the constitution.'" Maduro, in turn, accused the opposition of plotting a coup.

Even some Chavez allies -- like Heinz Dietrich, a theorist of Chavismo now living in Mexico City -- see the two men in conflict.

Maduro and Cabello come from different wings of the Chavista movement, and have different allegiances. While Maduro is more likely to succeed Chavez, if Cabello wanted a fight he would have strong support in the military.

Yet while news outlets have been indulging in succession speculation, there's little concrete evidence of a real power struggle. With official silence provoking worried reactions, these breathless reports will almost certainly turn out to be overblown. If there is a power struggle, however, odds are the arguments will hinge in part on a few words in the Venezuelan constitution.

The Heir Apparent

On December 9, before he left for treatment in Cuba, Chavez sat down before television cameras with his two top lieutenants, Maduro and Cabello, on either side of him. In an emotional speech, he suggested for the first time that he might not return to lead the South America country.

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The announcement (Reuters)

If it becomes necessary to call an election, Chavez said, looking directly into the camera, "pick Nicolas Maduro as president."

The press has spent several weeks acquainting Americans with Maduro: former bus driver and transportation union leader, and Chavez confidant. His leadership style is broadly considered a little rough. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal remarked that "he has been caught in recent TV interviews glancing down at note cards."

If he does become Venezuela's next president, he will follow on the heels of a boss who could speak extemporaneously for five or six hours at a time on his weekly talk show Aló Presidente.

Other reporters have noted Maduro's extensive ties to the Cuban government. Practically the only idiosyncratic piece of information that has escaped from behind the leadership's curtain of silence is a fact about Maduro's religious beliefs. Several outlets have reported that he is an adherent of the late Indian mystic Sri Sathya Sai. 

Yet the portrait of Maduro that has emerged in the news media is still very sparse, reflecting the Chavista practice of emphasizing Chavez's persona while occulting most information about his lieutenants.

Patrick Duddy, the last U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, was in touch with Maduro from time to time and recalls him as a "formal" presence. Publicly, his comments suggested he "largely shared President Chavez's deep antipathy to the United States."

Observers are looking for some sign that Maduro would soften Venezuela's stance towards the U.S. As the Chavez situation changes, the press have reported contact between Maduro and State Department officials. Both Maduro and a State Department spokesperson were quick to play down the significance of that contact in press conferences.

While some analysts have taken this as a sign of a potential new "softening" in U.S.-Venezuela relations if Maduro comes to power, Duddy suggested that any thaw in bilateral relations was not a unique development, citing other moments where there had been minor thaws.

The former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, whom Chavez expelled in September 2008 after the Bolivian government made similar moves, was able to return to the country nine months later to finish his tour of duty following a brief meeting between Obama and Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in Tobago in 2009. In that meeting, Chavez seemed open to restoring more formal diplomatic relations between the two countries out of national self-interest.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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