News Column

Chavez Silence Persists; Venezuela Mulls New Elections

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President Hugo Chavez spent his first week back in Venezuela too frail to be seen in public and too weak to receive well-wishers. But despite his precarious health, few doubt Chavez's prowess at the ballot box. And that's reviving tensions among a battered opposition at a time when many are expecting new elections.

The alliance of about 30 opposition parties known as the MUD has begun the process of trying to choose an eventual Chavez successor. But many wager the coalition will settle on Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda State, who won 6.6 million votes in October's presidential race. Although it wasn't enough to topple El Comandante, it was a record for the opposition and made Capriles a household name.

But now a growing minority is accusing the MUD of working behind closed doors and repeating past mistakes.

"Venezuelans and the political leaders are living in denial" if they think Capriles can edge out more votes than he did last time, said Diego Arria, a one-time presidential candidate and a full-time government critic. "If Capriles is the candidate, I will come out on television and say, 'This is the worst thing that could happen for the country.' "

Arria only won 1.2 percent of the vote during opposition primaries in 2012. But as a former governor, deputy and ambassador to the United Nations, he is seen as an elder statesman and his opinion carries weight in some sectors.

He is urging the opposition to form a larger coalition, which would include the MUD, but also labor groups, student organizations and other sectors that would deepen the pool of presidential candidates.

"It should be someone from outside of the political realm," Arria said of an opposition standard-bearer, "maybe a labor leader, maybe a professor, but someone who has some charisma."

The opposition has reason to be tense. After losing the presidential race in October, Chavez allies won 20 out of 23 governor's races in December.

"The opposition is in a climate where it's demoralized and unmotivated," said John Magdaleno, a political analyst in Caracas. "Whether it's Arria, other political parties, or other movements, people are unsatisfied with the direction of the (coalition) at this moment."

But the specter of snap elections makes calls for a shakeup problematic. If Chavez were to die or step down, new elections would be held within 30 days, and the government already has an anointed successor: Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"There are other legitimate (opposition) candidates," Magdaleno said. "But I think a political calculation needs to be made here -- there's simply not enough time."

Capriles has been keeping his head low as he concentrates on governing Miranda, Venezuela's most populous state and part of greater Caracas. While he takes shots at the administration for being more concerned with politicking than solving Venezuela's problems, he hasn't talked about being a presidential front-runner.

But the opposition is showing signs that it's revving up for a fight. Over the weekend, crowds took to the streets to protest the government's economic plan. A student group, which had been protesting outside the Cuban embassy demanding Chavez's return to Venezuela from Cuba where he was being treated for cancer, now says it will protest in front of the Military Hospital where the president is under care, until he makes an appearance.

The administration hasn't suggested new elections are imminent, but Maduro seems to be in campaign mode. A former union organizer and longtime foreign minister, Maduro, 50, has been leading rallies, inaugurating projects and excoriating the opposition almost daily. On Friday, as he toured a student-housing complex, he called his political foes "profoundly inhuman and corrupt" and accused the opposition of "resorting to all sorts of manipulations to create uncertainty in the country."

But most of the uncertainty here revolves around the president's health.

Chavez was whisked back to Caracas Feb. 18, unannounced and in the dead of night. Despite the homecoming, he hasn't been seen in public, or heard from, since Dec. 10, when he traveled to Cuba for a fourth round of cancer surgery.

On Wednesday, Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Caracas to see him, but the meeting never took place. The uncertainty only increased Thursday, when the government said the respiratory infection that Chavez has been battling since the surgery -- and which has required a tracheal tube to assist his breathing -- was not responding to treatment. But on Friday, Maduro said the president had presided over a five-hour cabinet meeting and described him as being happy and alert.

The upbeat reports haven't satisfied many here.

"If he was in a meeting for so many hours why won't they show him on TV?" asked Fernando Salcedo, a Caracas' cab driver. "It just doesn't make sense to me."

Most analysts think expedited elections would favor the government. The country was recently forced to devalue its currency 46.5 percent against the dollar -- an unpopular move that makes imported goods more expensive -- and has been battling rising inflation. The longer Maduro stays at the helm, the more his image will be tarnished by those problems.

"As of now, Maduro would win any election," Fausto Maso, a columnist for the opposition El Nacional wrote. "But if this mess continues, the country will keep disintegrating and anything could happen, including the electoral defeat of Chavismo."

During his 14 years in office, Chavez has proved invincible in the polls, winning four presidential elections and surviving one recall attempt. In 2006, after decades of infighting, the opposition finally joined forces to present common candidates to face the administration. Even so, during October's race, Chavez beat Capriles by 11 points to win another six-year term.

But Maduro is no Chavez, said Ramon Jose Medina, the adjunct secretary of the MUD. Chavez maintained his popularity by blaming his Cabinet for the administration's failings, including record-high inflation and soaring crime, Medina said. That has left Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who is also considered a presidential hopeful, hobbled.

"Maduro is weak on all sides," Medina said. Not only is the vice president burdened with the administration's sins but "he's been imitating Chavez -- he shows no signs of true leadership."

Not everyone agrees. Oscar Schemel, the director of Hinterlaces polling firm, expects the sympathy vote generated when Chavez dies or resigns will propel Maduro or any other successor. A Hinterlaces poll released last week shows Maduro winning 50 percent of the vote versus Capriles' 36 percent.

National Assembly Deputy Maria Corina Machado, who has also been mentioned as an opposition candidate, said the debate about the future of the movement is healthy. But once a standard-bearer has been chosen, whether it's Capriles or someone else, the opposition will rally behind them.

"The unity of Venezuela's democratic forces is assured because it is a true demand from the people," she said. "And it's something that took us a lot of effort to conquer."



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