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.

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.

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.

An increased openness on Maduro's part to do business with the Americans might have less to do with his personality than with directives left by Chavez.

Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, characterized Maduro's "personal style" as "fairly open, if one looks at him compared to other Chavistas," though he qualified this statement, noting that Maduro is "committed to the left."

Why So Silent?

Still, as enigmatic as Maduro can be, we know far more about him than Diosdado Cabello. The information void around Cabello, who like Chavez comes from a military background, gives us some sense of why the Venezuelan government as a whole is so secretive: It's part of the Chavez government's martial culture.

Very little has been written about Cabello, who on Saturday was reelected the chairman of the National Assembly. He was educated in Venezuela's officer system, and has known Chavez since their days in the military. He played a key supporting role in Chavez's attempted 1992 coup d' etat.

Shifter characterized Cabello as "less accessible" than Maduro. "My sense is he hasn't traveled quite as much," Shifter said, and doesn't "have as much of a sense of the broader context."

But Shifter did note Cabello's strong base of support in the military, which he characterized as a "black box" about which "not much is known." He sees a "crucial role" for the military in the country's future.

Like Chavismo, the military is made up of several factions. Cabello appears to be the "head figure" of a nationalistic segment of the military, as opposed to other, "institutionalist" factions that have a "sense of professionalism."

"What they say about a lot of these people that Cabello is close to is that they really resent the role of the Cubans" in Venezuela, Shifter said.

Chavez, who admires the Castros ideologically, has cultivated what appears to be a relationship of equals with the island nation, despite supporting it heavily with oil.

Shifter characterized parts of the military as "corrupt," and believes the "militaristic nature" of Chavismo has been "underplayed," noting the dominating presence of military officials in executive branch positions and governorships.

Cabello has already been president of Venezuela once -- for a period of several hours in April 2002, when Chavez was held hostage during a coup attempt. The attempt failed, and Chavez returned to office within 48 hours of leaving.

The month after, Chavez reorganized his cabinet, making Cabello, who had been vice-president, his interior minister.

Cabello later served a term as governor of Miranda state, losing the position to opposition leader Henrique Capriles in 2008. Capriles, Chavez's opponent in the last election, is likely to run again in the next one, which may have provided Chavez some incentive to name Maduro the heir.

The opposition alleges that Cabello abused his position as governor of Miranda state -- a position next occupied by Capriles -- making double payments to certain entities and offering lucrative government contracts to relatives. As of September 2012, the opposition had not been made aware of any investigation relating to the 2008 charges, Capriles's ally and interim governor told the newspaper El Universal.

If the allegations were true, they may not be Cabello's only involvement in corruption.

"From what I read," said Shifter, "he may be in a position to protect some of the officials in the military that may have benefited a great deal from the last couple of years in Venezuela from corruption, drug trafficking, and other things."

Both Shifter and Duddy played down the possibility of Cabello's ascendance.

One could argue that far less alarming than the dynamic between Maduro and Cabello in this instance is the fact that the Venezuelan state, as it is currently structured, can produce a leader with strong military support about whom almost nothing is known publicly.

A Chavez Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

Everyone seems to agree that Maduro and Cabello are the two key players in post-Chavez Venezuela, but reports on the legal order of succession become murky.

Whether Maduro or Cabello is next in line, legally, to succeed Chavez actually depends on the legal status of the leader's swearing-in -- an issue that may not be settled for weeks in law, even if events seem to overtake the law.

The latest Venezuelan constitution, which Chavez's own government implemented in 2009, is fairly clear on the two possible paths of succession. If Chavez died or were otherwise ruled "absent" by the National Assembly after his swearing-in (which is supposed to be on January 10), Maduro would assume power.

The National Assembly has two options for declaring an absence in this case. It can declare a permanent absence and require the vice president to oversee an election within 30 days. Or it can declare a temporary absence. In that case, Maduro would step into the office of president for a period of 90 days. His protectorship could be extended for another 90 before an election would have to be called.

On the other hand, if Chavez were declared permanently absent before his swearing-in, Cabello would assume control of the government for the 30 days needed to hold an election. Because Chavez has not yet been sworn in, at this moment, Cabello is technically in line to succeed Chavez.

At far greater issue than the technical order of succession is the swearing-in that activates one order of succession or the other. Yesterday the government acknowledged that Chavez will not return to Venezuela for his swearing in. (Multiple reports have him on a ventilator.) But Article 231 of the Venezuelan constitution says Chavez must be sworn in on January 10th in front of the National Assembly in order to take power for another term.

The government is using the second half of article 231 as a way around this requirement:

If for any unforseen reason the President of the Republic cannot be sworn in in front of the National assembly, he/she will be so before the Supreme Court.

Si por cualquier motivo sobrevenido el Presidente o Presidenta de la República no pudiese tomar posesión ante la Asamblea Nacional, lo hará ante el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia.

The public fight over succession in Venezuela right now hinges on this sentence: Since it's preceded immediately by the sentence saying Chavez must be sworn in on the 10th in front of the Assembly, does that mean he must be sworn in on the 10th in front of the Supreme Court?

And what is the court, anyway -- the court seated in its building in Caracas? Or the members of the court, no matter where they are in the world?

Venezuela could have flown the justices to Havana, but it's unclear that that would have satisfied constitutional requirements. By saying Chavez will not be sworn in on the 10th, his lieutenants appear to have foreclosed that option. The National Assembly voted on Tuesday to let Chavez be sworn in in front of the court at a later date -- a move the supreme court has now affirmed as constitutional.

The situation is further complicated by Article 233, which states the conditions of an "absolute lack" of the president or president-elect of Venezuela -- a situation that would immediately compel an election. Death, obviously, is one possible condition; but no report indicates that condition has been met.

Otherwise, there are two theoretically viable options. Chavez can be declared "mentally or physically incapacitated" by a medical commission designated by the the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Or he can be declared by the National Assembly to have "abandoned his post."

Neither condition seems likely to be met, given support for Chavez on the court and in the National Assembly.

Opposition Confusion?

Over the past week, some outlets reported, members of the opposition have argued that Chavez must be considered absent and that, as head of the National Assembly, Cabello should take power on the 10th.

The opposition has not, however, appeared to be unified. Adding another contortion to the mix, on Monday the 7th, opposition leader Henrique Capriles appeared to dissent from this tactic in an interview with the television network Globovision: "We never stated that on January 10th the president-elect of the Republic will stop being president."

Both Duddy and Shifter noted that, with emotions running high among the Venezuelan people, the opposition might not want to be seen appearing to pick on an ailing leader.

But this has not been a consistent approach. Divergent reports partly reflect a lack of unity within the diverse currents of the Venezuelan opposition.

Yet finally, in the past 24 hours, a consensus may have begun to emerge on the way to proceed.

Ideally, says the BBC, the opposition wants Chavez declared temporarily absent "so a caretaker president can be installed" for a period of 90 days or more:

Chavez's permanent absence ... would trigger fresh elections within 30 days.

"They're trying to get Mr Chavez removed as quickly as possible but they also know that they don't have the resources right now to deal with a snap election," political analyst Carlos Romero told the BBC.

The opposition has called protests for the 10th, while Cabello has convoked a pro-Chavez rally for the same day. Clashes between the two groups are possible.

Any succession fight would play out publicly as a conflict over the legal interpretation of Article 231, and possibly involve Article 233. The opposition and the Chavez government will likely continue to tussle publicly.

But Are Cabello and Maduro Fighting for Power?

A former U.S. official warns against interpreting the situation in Venezuela to assume that there is a power struggle between Maduro and Cabello, citing other potential explanations for the apparently unresolved situation. Most commentators are inferring, the official said, "largely from the fact that those who are in caretaker positions while President Chavez is in Cuba have not seemingly simply declared" a new election.

In order to do so, the National Assembly would have to declare Chavez permanently absent. It could be difficult to marshal support for such a move.

Additionally, their decision not to do so may be part of a broader strategy to bolster Maduro's status when he does run for president. If Chavez is kept in a bare state of life, or if his death is covered up, and the swearing-in is cleanly evaded, Maduro could potentially govern in his stead for up to half a year. That could give the vice-president a leg up in running for the presidency. Given that Chavez publicly declared his support for a Maduro succession, this may be the dying leader's own plan for his successor.

Maduro could govern de facto for even longer if the National Assembly never declares Chavez incapacitated, temporarily or otherwise. However, the Venezuelan people might not put up with such a move.

Duddy considers any wait to establish Maduro's legitimacy a risky move, noting that whichever Chavez lieutenant runs for office after Chavez will likely face Capriles in an election. The former governor made a strong challenge to Chavez in the 2012 election, but lost, says Duddy, partly due to Chavez's good "ground game." In his analysis, it makes more sense for a Chavez successor to run for office sooner than later, while the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's vote-getting operation is still in good shape.

Whether Chavez can give Maduro a toehold may have little to do with the long-term prospects for the Bolivarian revolution if Chavez dies. The Venezuelan leader's emotional leadership style helped sustain his rule. By contrast, both Maduro and Cabello are widely considered less charismatic than their boss.

Like Castro's retreat from the spotlight, the Chavez death watch has prompted increasingly surreal statements on the part of his lieutenants. Cabello, who spoke to the National Assembly on Saturday after he was reelected, seemed to deny any role in the succession process for the contingency of death:

"Hugo Chavez Frias was elected president of the Republic, and he will continue being president of the Republic after January 10th - let nobody doubt -- to be clear -- let nobody doubt that," Cabello declared to the deputies."

"Hugo Chávez Frías fue electo para ser presidente de la República y seguirá siendo presidente de la República más allá del día 10 de enero, no le quede duda a nadie, bien claro, a nadie le quede duda de eso", gritó Cabello ante los diputados.