Inauguration Day in Venezuela

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The presidential inauguration in Venezuela has come and gone and President Chavez was a no-show, still presumably recuperating from a post-operative respiratory infection after his fourth surgery to “remove malignant cells” from his pelvic area. In reality, little is officially known about his actual medical condition and whether he will ever be able to return and reclaim the presidency. He has not been seen in public since December 11.

Until Wednesday’s decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, the lack of information about what would happen on inauguration day left Venezuelans unsettled. Police and military were in the streets of Caracas to fend off any disturbances that might occur.

Unsurprisingly, the court ruled in favor of viewing the inauguration as a formality and saw no legal obstacle to Chavez continuing as head of state for an unspecified period of time. The decision provoked an outcry from opposition forces that claimed a rupture in constitutional democracy in the country. However, former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles accepted the decision calmly, claiming that the opposition “can’t be seen as trying to gain via a technicality what we have yet to achieve via the vote.”

What is most interesting about the court decision, though, is that it does not confirm either Vice President Nicolas Maduro or National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello as a successor or even as acting president. Maduro must continue as caretaker of the country under the limited powers accorded to him by Chavez on December 8, before he left for Cuba. This effectively leaves the country without anyone to make important decisions on some of the economic adjustments the country is waiting for and needs. As Moisés Naím points out in a recent article, the inflation rate in Venezuela is currently running at 18 percent, the fiscal deficit is at 20 percent of GDP, and the currency, the bolivar, is trading on the black market at four times the official exchange rate.

Even more complex is the situation if and when President Chavez dies. In the presidential elections last October, Capriles claimed 45 percent of the vote. He would seem to be the natural heir to Chavez if a special election is held as the Venezuelan Constitution mandates; none of the potential candidates from the current government have fared as well in opinion polls. However, after the opposition lost four governorships in December’s regional elections, some analysts are now giving more weight to the possibility that Maduro could win a special election as Chavez’ anointed successor.

The private sector has cried out for an increase in foreign exchange available to pay for imports and avoid further shortages of goods like food and medicine. However, Fedecámaras, Venezuela’s top business association, is taking the long view of what is needed move Venezuela into the 21st century and has wisely refrained from inserting itself into the current political turmoil. Given the economic circumstances described above, it could be a very bumpy ride until Chavez either recuperates or moves on to the history books.

John Zemko is Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at CIPE.

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