Venezuelan Health and Curing Chavez

IN SITU | February 6, 2012     

Curing Chavez and the Prospects for Venezuelan HealthThe 2012 presidential election portends not only a verdict on Chavez and his revolution, but also a major national discussion about the rebuilding of the country’s institutions

President Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan revolution – variously ‘Bolivarian’ and ‘socialist’ – are going through a rough time. After months of rumours and a long absence in Cuba in July of last year, the President announced that he had undergone two surgeries, that a cancerous tumor had been extracted, and that, having undergone chemotherapy, he was in the process of recovery.

Officially, Chavez has been cured of his cancer – something he attributes to Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a Venezuelan physician who died in 1919. (Hernandez is considered to be a saint by most Venezuelans – even if he is not officially recognized as such by the Vatican.) Perhaps the numerous public prayers – all conducted as theatrical political shows – also contributed to the turn of events in Chavez’s favour.

Chavez’s illness and cure have been treated as state secrets. He was treated in Cuba in order to avoid any news leaks related to his disease, and there is no information on the type of cancer that he had or on the organs affected. Of course, the President is taking great pains to show that he is cured. The official slogan of the revolution, “Fatherland, Socialism or Death,” – once so visible in official places – has been discarded due to the mention of death. The new slogan simply reads: “Venceremos” (“We Will Triumph”). Chavez’s cure is his triumph over death, and indeed the triumph of the country and of socialism, of both of which Chavez is the personification. He has been President for 13 years, and is working hard for a new six-year term. The presidential election is in October 2012 and – to be sure – Chavez’s triumph over the illness has become part of an early electoral campaign.

Rumours about Chavez’s health have not been calmed by all of these declarations, slogans and claims of a miraculous cure. Within his own party, tensions are visible because the principal leaders see themselves as rightful successors – even if they cannot run for office while Chavez is still around. “Chavism without Chavez” has been considered a heresy because Chavez has made himself a God-like figure – indispensable for the success of the revolution. The 2012 election was moved up from the traditional December date to October by the National Electoral Council (itself dominated by Chavistas). The decision may well have been motivated by the President’s health issues. The political reality on the ground is that no other individual from his party could win a presidential election.

The 13 years of Chavez’s presidency have been a mixed bag. There has been a renewal of the national fight against poverty and exclusion: medical and educational services and food have been brought to people who were once forgotten or ignored in a democracy that defined itself more in terms of electoral contests than by inclusiveness and social justice. The negative side of all of this has been the destruction of national institutions – including the judiciary, the civil service and electoral institutions – and the economic structure of the country. A great deal of previously privately owned farm land has been taken over by squatters with the support of government. Many businesses have been expropriated by the government – often without compensation to the owners. Unemployment (unofficially) is also high – even if official figures show otherwise, as anyone benefiting from state subsidies is considered to be ‘employed.’ And labyrinthine regulations, including price and exchanges controls, have not stanched inflation – highest in all of Latin America.

The Venezuelan state now manages many important businesses: electricity, telecommunications, steel mills, cement, glass-making, coffee processing and hotels, among many others. The private sector is tightly controlled, shrinking and fearful. State management is so plagued by cronyism and corruption that workers are actively opposing the expropriation of businesses that employ them. Investments in industrial and physical infrastructure are paltry. The results are predictable: shortages of many products – from food and cement to automobiles – sporadic provision of electricity, market speculation and widespread social malaise and anomie.

If the country’s economic problems are serious, then the social situation is not markedly better. The homicide rate – now among the highest in the region – has grown enormously. Kidnapping has become a common crime. Drug trafficking is on the rise, and some important drug lords – now in prison – boast of official support from high-ranking government officials. A justice of the Supreme Court is now on the run from corruption charges.

President Chavez has not been shy about naming or visiting his international friends: the Castro brothers, Ahmadinejad, Lukashenko, Mugabe and even the departed Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. To Chavez, all of these international actors are ‘brothers.’ Chavez even called Gaddafi the Libyan Bolivar, and gave him a replica of Bolivar’s sword. In return, Chavez received an honorary doctorate from the University of Tripoli.

Domestic opposition to the Chavez regime is active. Since 2006, the opposition has been unified in an electoral coalition, and in 2010, it received the majority of votes in the parliamentary election – even if the victory was not reflected in the number of seats in the National Assembly. The opposition has agreed to hold a primary election in February 2012 in order to choose a candidate for President of the Republic. The contenders for this candidacy – among whom the top three (Henrique Capriles Radonski, Pablo Perez and Leopoldo Lopez) are young and energetic – and the various political parties have shown a firm commitment to support the candidate elected in the primary.

Even if the Chavez campaign once again made extensive use of public resources and explicit pressure and monetary ‘gifts,’ the results of the 2012 election would not be predictable. Chavez is normally a vigorous campaigner, but he will likely not have much energy this time round. Last winter, some polls showed that about one-third of the Venezuelan population supports Chavez, one-third supports the opposition’s still-to-be-determined candidate, and one-third is still undecided. (Of course, ‘undecided’ in an authoritarian political system can mean that one is fearful of expressing an opinion to a stranger who says that she is a pollster.)

Question: If Chavez is defeated electorally, will he or his successor hand power over to the opposition? Adan Chavez, his brother and one of those aspiring to succeed him, has already indicated that revolutionaries should use force to defend the revolution. In his view, the revolution cannot depend on an election. Leopoldo Lopez, a popular opposition figure and contender for the February primary election, was administratively disqualified from holding elective positions; the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered this disqualification reversed. Although the National Council of Elections sanctioned his participation in the election, the Chavez-controlled Supreme Court has stated that the Inter-American Court’s decision is “unenforceable.” Government lawyers insist that the disqualification will hold if Lopez is elected.

And so the electoral destiny of Venezuela is not at all clear. Chavez’s people are not inclined to respect electoral results, and yet Venezuela has a democratic tradition – meaning that resistance would be stiff were this tradition overturned. Still, worries for the future do not end there. The new government – whether Chavista in character or formed from the ranks of Chavez’s opposition – will face an extremely delicate domestic situation. The country must rebuild its institutions. A large militia – the armed branch of Chavez’s political movement – has developed in parallel to, and parasitically on, the professional army (itself very much dominated, at the highest ranks, by Chavez’s adherents), resulting in frictions between the two bodies. The autonomous universities, whose students and professors have generally actively opposed the regime, have been subjected to severe economic restrictions. The judiciary is no longer an independent body, and civil servants have been replaced by courtiers and political activists. Landowners and businesses are likely to seek the return of expropriated properties or monetary compensation from future governments. And important transnational enterprises have brought Venezuela before international courts or arbitration tribunals.

Bref: The reconstruction of the Venezuelan state and the conservation of national social peace will be enormous tasks. Going into the 2012 presidential election, the country might be said to be suffering from a grave and complex illness. And we do not know whether Venezuelans can count on another miracle cure from the saintly Jose Gregorio Hernandez.

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Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo is a professor of law at the Universidad Metropolitana de Caracas, and a visiting professor at Stanford Law School.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Fernando Llano)

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