With Hugo Chávez in Cuba for chemotherapy, who's running Venezuela?

| Jul. 17, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Christian Science Monitor

Barinas, Venezuela—Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez touched down last night at Havana’s José Martí airport in another twist in the tale of his newly public battle with cancer.

The fiery socialist leader will today begin chemotherapy there for an unknown period of time, raising questions as to the future of his presidency especially as elections loom in 2012.

“We're going to give it everything we've got,” Mr. Chávez said Saturday as he boarded his flight in Caracas. “It's not time to die. It's time to live.”

The slow release of information about Chávez's illness has led to much speculation on his health and, therefore, his ability to govern. And as he toys with how much decision-making power to delegate while he is treated in Cuba, analysts warn of a looming power struggle within his inner circle.

“Chávez still resists transferring authority to his vice president, and it remains to be seen how many important decisions will be made by others,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “It would be a complete break from the caudillo-style [quasi-dictatorial, top-down] governance that has characterized the Chávez regime.”

Power struggle ahead?

Mr. Shifter struggles to believe that an arrangement whereby Chávez shuttles back and forth between Cuba and Venezuela, maintaining his hold on power, will work smoothly.

“Either Chávez will refuse to give up real decision-making or, if he is incapacitated, his inner circle will engage in a fierce power struggle that could become quite chaotic,” says Shifter.

During Chávez's recent three-week-long convalescence in Cuba – during which time he was finally forced admit to Venezuela and the world that he had been diagnosed with and treated for cancer – Venezuela's Vice President Elías Jaua appeared reluctant to take the helm, perhaps for fear of appearing to upstage his boss.

A hint of delegation

This time around, Chávez has delegated some – but not all – decisions to Mr. Jaua and Finance Minister Jorge Giordani.

This is in fact the first time in his 12-year presidency that any top-level governance has been entrusted to others.

There have been many calls for Chávez to hand over all power temporarily, given his state. However, the socialist firebrand is the revolution in Venezuela. He is both the face of the government and the man that runs it. So he's reluctant to do this.

Chávez’s omnipresent role in government was demonstrated during his absence in Cuba last month when ministers made confused and contradictory announcements, clearly out of the loop and fighting a battle between saying too little and perpetuating rumors or saying too much and upsetting their leader.

Who will run things?

The question of power struggles and future governance of Venezuela has been the focus of much talk since Chávez’s announcement that he had been treated for cancer.

Jaua, as well as other top ministers in Venezuela, lack the charisma that has kept Chávez in power for more than a decade. They lack his ease with the population, especially the poor, and will struggle therefore to bring in votes.

Elder brother Adán Chávez – jokingly described by Hugo as “the Marxist in the family” – appears to be a possible candidate, although lacks his brother’s magnetism.

For now, few supporters can imagine anyone besides Hugo Chávez adequately carrying the mantle of his "21st-century socialism."

Gloria Torres lives in the Petare slum in the east of Venezuela's capital, Caracas. She has organized church events to pray for the president’s health and has no doubt he'll recover fully.

Says Ms. Torres: “Chávez’s health is the health of the Venezuelan people.”