All of the President’s Men: The Bolivarian Succession?

Since his first electoral victory in 1998, Hugo Chávez Frias has gradually come to permeate practically every facet of Venezuelan society imaginable. Whether it is the daily polemical headlines that scream at passersby from humble newsstands, or the massive roadside billboards displaying the loquacious leader in a variety of guises, it is pretty much impossible to remain ignorant, let alone indifferent, to the omnipotent role that the former paratrooper commander occupies in the collective national psyche.

During the course of his rule, Chávez has attempted to redress the massive economic inequality that exists in this petroleum rich South American nation through a simple redistribution of oil profits to the most disenfranchised demographic in the form of extensive social programs. However, in doing so, the confrontational president has effectively drawn a line in the sand for the Venezuelan electorate over the past twelve years, with few brave citizens daring to openly occupy the middle ground.

Therefore, it came as a shock to Venezuelans of all political affiliations and loyalties this past June 30th when the normally overactive and overexposed president finally dispelled the vicious swirl of rumors surrounding his unusual disappearance from the public eye some two and a half weeks prior by admitting that he was recovering from an operation that had removed cancerous cells from his pelvic area. The news predictably generated feelings of schadenfreude amongst the more sadistic elements of the opposition, while conversely prompting legions of chavistas to openly pray and declare their love for the afflicted leader.

This was all to be expected in the event of such a revelation. What was not, however, was the apparent power vacuum left in the wake of Chávez’s unexpected convalescence in Havana. Amidst the furor of the opposition, who claimed that not only was his undisclosed absence irresponsible yet unconstitutional, the highest ranks of the ruling party PSUV presented a united front to not only their constituents, but to the outside world as well.

However, a different reality belied this perception.

While everybody was speculating about who would be the president’s probable successor, few were able to see the reemergence of old party divisions that had never quite disappeared during Chávez’s time in office. Contrary to conventional wisdom, particularly that which is contrived in the Western media, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) is comprised of several diverse factions vying for executive influence and is by no means the prototypical Latin American civil-military alliance of yesteryear. The recent backstage machinations of these different groups has shown not only who currently wields power within the ruling party structure, but more importantly who will guide its’ future, with or without the seemingly irreplaceable president.

Chávez’s Final Chapter?

To the dismay of his many detractors, and to the euphoria of his followers, President Chávez made a surprise homecoming in the early hours of July 4th, ending voracious speculation on whether he was too infirm to attend the immensely important bicentennial celebration set to take place the following day, an occasion which his government had been preparing for considerable time.

Yet, whereas the Venezuelan leader’s unannounced return to Caracas succeeded in killing rumors that his health was too fragile to even risk traveling home, his absence from the ostentatious military parade in the capital on July 5th, in which most of his fellow South American presidents were notably in attendance, spawned fresh speculation over the severity of his condition.

“Doctors consulted in Miami and Venezuela agree,” Francis Robles opined in The Miami Herald, “that from the few details Chávez shared, he most likely has colon cancer and could face treatment for the next eight to nine months.”

Given the importance of the bicentennial, such questions were naturally warranted, although they did little to elicit more detailed information from the upper ranks of the ruling party regarding not only the immediate future of the Venezuelan leadership, but also whether Chávez would be fit to run for a third term in next year’s presidential elections.

In the days following the holiday, Vice President Elías Jaua confidently assured reporters that, “Of course he will be president again in 2012.”

Despite the hubris within the PSUV regarding Chávez’s recovery and inevitable reelection in next year’s ballot, one which is expected to be the most competitive the incumbent has ever faced, his action and words suggest a different story. For instance, in the week following his return to Venezuela, Chávez conceded that he would no longer be able to maintain his famously exhausting work regimen.

“I mustn’t exceed myself,” admitted the president, “I have to put on the brakes.”

With this admission, many Venezuelans have wondered who is going to pick up the ailing leader’s slack, given the immense workload and responsibilities that he has been accustomed to fulfilling during the course of his presidency.

According to Nelson Bocaranda, a widely-read columnist for the opposition daily El Universal, Chávez will be forced to delegate many of his normal functions to his thirty-member Executive Cabinet, with three prominent figures taking the lead.

‘The three principal pillars will be these “commander-president’s men”: [Foreign Minister] Nicolas Maduro, [Vice President] Elías Jaua, and [ex-Cabinet minister] Jose Vicente Rangel,” Bocaranda writes.

Within this triumvirate, Maduro will assume control of the actual ruling party, whereas the octogenarian political veteran Rangel will essentially serve as a consiglieri/supervisor to the president during his recovery given his extensive experience in Venezuelan politics.

Elías Jaua will be responsible for practically every government ministry, or as Bocaranda describes it, the Vice President “will be in charge of running and coordinating the entire national productive apparatus.”

While all three of these men have been involved with Chávez since the very beginning, the sudden elevation of the 42-year old Jaua to the position of a de-facto caretaker president is the most revealing, given that he has emerged from such a deep pool of competition within the PSUV structure. Even though the Western media continues to proclaim that Hugo Chávez has no clear successor, the transformation of Elías Jaua from a young party militant into the power behind the throne demonstrates otherwise.

Fissures Beneath the Surface

The recent ascendance of Vice President Jaua may come as a surprise to the casual observer of Venezuelan politics, given the lack of exposure he has received outside of his homeland. But to those within the national political apparatus, Jaua has long been recognized as one of the most loyal and radical activists to come from the PSUV cadres.

Born in Caucagua, Miranda, to descendents of Lebanese immigrants in 1969, Elías Jaua became politicized at the age of thirteen when he joined the Unión de Jóvenes Revolucionarios, the youth-wing of the oft-banned Bandera Roja guerrilla group-cum-political movement. By the time he reached adulthood, the young firebrand had become considerably more active, eventually being elected President of the Student Council in the Sociology faculty at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the largest university in the country.

While still in his twenties, Jaua made contact with the freshly pardoned Chávez, who had gained national recognition for his leadership role in an attempted 1992 military coup. The former devoted himself to galvanizing youth support for the newly founded MVR-200, the first incarnation of an official chavista political party which subsequently won a decisive historic victory in 1998, permanently changing the Venezuelan political fabric.

At the age of 29, Jaua was the youngest member of the newly minted national leadership to sign the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, and subsequently served as secretary to the President in the years 2000-2001. He was slated to be Venezuela’s ambassador to Argentina the following year, however his credentials were rejected by then-Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde, who cited Jaua’s links to the carapintadas, a radical right-wing faction within the Argentine military who were principally known for their violent attempts to prevent official investigations into military abuses committed during the Southern Cone nation’s notorious Dirty War.

It seems incomprehensible that a lifetime leftist militant such as Elías Jaua would have such connections with a group from the other side of the political spectrum, and the Duhalde administration never provided any further evidence to support their claims. What appears to be the real motive for this diplomatic rejection was Jaua’s known links to groups on the extreme left such as his adolescent commitment Bandera Roja.

Bouncing back from this setback, Chávez placed his loyal activist in charge of the Ministry of the Economy during the turbulent period beginning in 2003, a position in which Jaua gained notoriety for the numerous expropriations that occurred under his watch. Following a cabinet shuffle in 2006, he was then transferred to head the Ministry of Agriculture, where he further made his mark by playing a central role in the drafting and implementation of the agrarian reform bill ‘La Ley de Tierras’, and Jaua, despite replacing Ramón Carrizales as Vice President in January, 2010, continues to hold this cabinet position.

His path to the top has not been free of conflict or controversy however, as not only does Jaua predictably have endless detractors in the opposition, but also within his own party as well. Jaua is consistently characterized as belonging to the more radical civilian-activist core of the PSUV known as the Frente Francisco de Miranda (FFM), and is often described as the most important member of the allegedly 21,000 strong group.

Founded in June 2003 by dedicated party activists, the FFM’s stated objectives are to ‘eradicate poverty’ and ‘achieve social unity’ in Venezuela. Critics claim however, that these ‘rojo-rojitos’, or redder-than-red militants are actually Cuban-trained cadres who are strategically placed within different social sectors to protect not only Chávez’s hold on power, but also to preserve the Cuban influence on the president.

“The intention,” claimed ex-opposition politician Guillermo Palacios, “is to strengthen the Castroite ideology because everyday they are organized in combat units.”

Throughout the Chávez years, a notably rift has simmered in the PSUV between those from the FFM, and those from a military faction led by Diosdado Cabello, who was a co-conspirator of the current president during the ill-fated 1992 coup.

Cabello, who currently occupies a seat in the National Assembly representing his home state of Monagas, has served Chávez in a variety of capacities throughout his rule, notably as the primary architect of the ‘Bolivarian Circles’ in the early years, and subsequently as Vice President, Minister of the Interior, and as the Governor of Miranda state.

The former military man lost his last post in the 2008 gubernatorial election to Henrique Carriles Radonski, a young opposition politician and one of the more probable candidates for the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) in next year’s presidential ballot.

Politics appears to be a family business, as Cabello’s sister is a member of the Venezuelan permanent mission to the UN, while his brother serves as the head of SENIAT, the national revenue service.

Like Jaua, Cabello is known for his intense loyalty to the president and also his wide-ranging influence within the armed forces due to his own military background, making him perhaps the most prominent figure within the military wing of the PSUV. This faction is also referred to as ‘los originarios’ or ‘los centauros’ because of their association with Chávez’s political project ever since the beginning.

Strains between the two men have existed since 2009, when Jaua was spearheading an anti-corruption drive within the Venezuelan government, a campaign in which an independent prosecutor had accused Cabello of numerous improprieties. However, in response to questions regarding Cabello’s conduct at a press conference, Jaua refused to publicly defend his fellow chavista, opting to declare instead that “there will never be automatic solidarity within the PSUV.”

The following year saw the hostilities escalate between the pair. During the primaries in the months before the 2010 National Assembly elections, Cabello confronted Jaua in Miraflores Palace and tried to have him appoint his preferred candidate to run for a seat in Miranda state, where Cabello had served as governor until 2008. The Vice President flatly refused and told Cabello that he had selected another candidate already, to which the ex-soldier cursed out the former student activist. Jaua reacted allegedly by slugging Cabello in the mouth, as the ensuing fracas had to be broken up by their respective bodyguards. The situation was only assuaged when Chávez himself appeared on the scene and proceeded to rebuke both of them, ordering Cabello to return home to Monagas, while selecting his own candidate to run for the disputed seat.

Both men professed brotherhood in the aftermath of this unacknowledged incident, however this appears to be more out of loyalty to their commander-in-chief than to any semblance of genuine fraternal solidarity.

“Since the internal battles of chavismo,” wrote former Minister of Planning and current editor of opposition daily ‘Tal Cual’, Teodoro Petkoff, “in which Elías Jaua is winning the game against Diosdado Cabello and [PDVSA-head] Rafael Ramirez, [Chávez] has remained in the hands of a phalanx of infantile leftists, leftovers from the ultra-leftist university students of the 80s and 90s who seek to promote social engineering formulas copied mechanically from the failed Soviet and Cuban experiences.”

In light of Chávez’s recent illness, the domestic media has been rife with speculation over renewed hostilities between Jaua, the de-facto head of the FFM, and Cabello, who retains excellent relations with the top Venezuelan generals. It appears that the only thing that prevented the political infighting from intensifying was the surprise return of the mercurial leader to Caracas.

Jose A. Colina, a former Venezuelan army lieutenant and head of Miami-based exile organization Venezolanos Perseguidos Politicos en el Exilio (VEPPEX), asserts that Chávez “has arrived in Venezuela to calm the internal struggles in his party between [Chávez’s brother] Adán Chávez, Elías Jaua, and Diosdado Cabello. He also promoted Henry Rangel Silva to general – the same one who said in October 2010 that if Chávez lost the 2012 elections that the armed forces wouldn’t recognize the result and would keep Chávez in power.”