Jun 29, 2011 | 21:38 GMT

7 mins read

Venezuela: Chavez's Health and a Potential Power Struggle

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's older brother, Adan Chavez, is rumored to be preparing to take charge in Caracas as the president continues recuperating from an apparently serious medical condition. The president has used divisions between factions in his regime and the threat of an armed citizens' militia to maintain power in Caracas. While he remains hospitalized in Cuba, those factions could begin positioning themselves to attempt to take over, though a lack of broad popular support would complicate any attempted coup.
Rumors are circulating that Adan Chavez, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's older brother and governor of Chavez's home state of Barinas, is positioning himself to take charge of the regime while Chavez recuperates from what appears to be a serious medical condition. Adan Chavez attracted attention when, during a June 26 prayer meeting for the president in Barinas, he quoted Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara in saying, "It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle." In other words, Adan Chavez is reminding the president's supporters that taking up arms may be necessary to retain power should elections prove insufficient. Chavez was hospitalized June 10 in Cuba, where he underwent surgery. According to the Venezuelan government, the surgery was needed to treat a pelvic abscess but complications arose from a knee injury the president suffered while jogging in May. However, a STRATFOR source with a link to the president's medical team has said that he first underwent surgery in early May, when he unexpectedly postponed a state visit to Brazil. Though the official reason given for the postponement was a knee injury, the source said, the doctors had discovered a tumor in the prostate. One month later, the president felt pain in his abdomen during visits to Ecuador and Brazil. He then went to Cuba, where his medical team discovered that the tumor had spread in the pelvic area. Since his second surgery June 10, Chavez has been heavily medicated and in a great deal of pain. This explains why the president, who typically embraces the media, has shied away from the camera over the past 17 days. Besides a June 25 message posted on Twitter in which he talked about his daughter, ex-wife and grandchildren coming to visit him in Havana, the president's last physical media appearance was a voice-only interview on Caracas-based Telesur television network on June 12, in which he sought to reassure observers that he would recover quickly and return soon to Venezuela. He also appeared in four photographs with the Castro brothers published by Cuba's official daily Granma and the website Cubadebate in what appeared to be a hospital room. According to a STRATFOR source, the president has been trying to negotiate with his doctors to return to Caracas by July 5, in time for Venezuela's 200th independence anniversary and military parade. Though STRATFOR's source close to the president's medical team claims that his medical condition is not life-threatening, the doctors do not believe the president appears well enough to make a swift return to Venezuela.

The Main Power Players

The president's prolonged absence is naturally stirring up rumors of plotting within the regime and military establishment against the Venezuelan leader. Splits are becoming increasingly visible within the regime. First, there is Adan Chavez, who has been described as having a very close relationship to the president and was said to be among the first to visit Chavez in the hospital in Cuba. Adan became governor of Barinas state in 2008 (a post previously held by his father) and has served as the president's ambassador to Cuba. Indeed, the president's brother is responsible for extending Cuban links into Venezuela as an additional check on potential dissenters within the regime. Though Adan is someone the president is more likely to trust, he would have difficulties building broader support. Then there is Vice President Elias Jaua, whom the president has notably prevented from assuming his presidential duties during his absence. Jaua belongs to the more hard-line, ideological chavista camp that has fostered a close relationship with Cuba, drawing his support from Miranda state but facing resistance within the military establishment. On the other side of the split is the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) deputy and PSUV regional vice president in the east, Diosdado Cabello, formerly Chavez's chief of staff and vice president. Cabello is joined by the head of Venezuela's Strategic Operational Command, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva. Director of Military Intelligence Hugo Carvajal and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, Venezuela's former interior and justice minister and chief liaison between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, are also in Cabello's camp. This faction carries substantial support within the armed forces and has been wary of the large Cuban presence in the military-intelligence establishment (designed in large part to check dissent within the regime). This group has been most heavily involved in drug trafficking and Venezuela's elaborate money-laundering schemes that have debilitated numerous Venezuelan state firms. In the middle of this mix is Electricity Minister Ali Rodriguez, a former energy minister, finance minister and president of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and longstanding member of the regime. Rodriguez and current PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez are among the regime members who try to operate as autonomously as possible and likely have become too powerful for the president's comfort.

The Caracas Dilemma

By the president's design, no single person within this maze of Venezuelan politicians and military figures is likely to assume authority over the state and maintain power without a major struggle. The president can look to his brother or ideological allies like Jaua to fill in for him, but they all lack the charisma and intricate web of dependencies that Chavez has created over the past 11 years that keep him in power. Moreover, anyone attempting a government intervention at the president's expense will have to contend with the country's burgeoning National Bolivarian Militia (NBM) — an army largely composed of lower-class workers that, while lacking fighting skills, is driven by the chavista ideology and could produce a mass showing in the streets in support of the president, thereby complicating any coup attempt. This is a lesson that Chavez understands well, as his attempted coup in 1992 and his rivals' attempted coup in 2002 failed in part because they lacked popular support. The military has attempted to place checks on the NBM, specifically by demanding control over arsenals that could be used by militia members. However, the president and members of the regime like Jaua have been working carefully to build the militia's autonomy at the expense of the armed forces, and it is unclear how much trouble they would have in trying to arm the NBM. Adan Chavez is likely counting on his familial link and longstanding ideological commitment to Marxism, and the chavista fervor within the militia, to bolster himself in the eyes of the military elite should his brother call on him to step in. Chavez has created multiple layers of insulation around his power by fostering competition among the factions within his inner circle, dividing his opposition and arming citizens in support of his regime in case the military makes a move against him. That said, the Venezuelan president also was probably not expecting a major health complication to throw him off balance. Though there is still a good chance Chavez could make a comeback, the longer he remains outside of Venezuela, the more difficult it will be for him to manage a long-simmering power struggle within the regime and the more uncertainty about Venezuela's political future will be felt in the energy markets.

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