The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is almost certainly a no-show for Thursday's constitutionally scheduled inauguration.
Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from since leaving for Cuba for a fourth cancer surgery Dec. 11. His condition is described as "delicate" in government statements, but his political opponents want more information — beginning with proof that he's alive.
Good luck getting answers out of the despots who run Venezuela — or Cuba.
Chavez has long modeled himself after his idol and mentor, Fidel Castro, from his bombastic antagonism toward the United States to the secrecy surrounding his illness. Almost two years into their president's medical adventure, Venezuelans don't even know what kind of cancer he has.
Obliged to accept (or not) his assurances that he would be around to serve a third six-year term, they apparently gave him the benefit of the doubt. In October, Chavez vanquished his first serious challenger, Henrique Capriles, despite being too sick to campaign.
But he can't defeat his own mortality. Chavez, 58, has long maneuvered to set himself up as "president for life," but it's not at all certain that he'll outlive the frail but lingering Castro, 86.
Venezuela's constitution isn't clear about what should happen if Chavez is too sick to be sworn in for another term. His supporters say they'll get around that ambiguity by postponing the inauguration.
There's nothing gray about what's supposed to happen if he dies: an election within 30 days. But the timing of his death matters greatly, depending on how you interpret the constitution. If a president dies, the vice president is to serve as interim president until the election; if a president-elect dies before inauguration day, the reins pass temporarily to the president of the National Assembly. In this case that would be Diosdado Cabello, who has strong ties to military leaders — whose loyalty to Chavez is not necessarily transferable to Maduro.
Chavez's opponents suggest that Cuban leaders and the like-minded Maduro might withhold news of the president's death to manipulate that scenario to their advantage.
Whoever ends up running Venezuela will preside over the mess Chavez made of a prosperous and promising nation. He treated the national treasury like his personal ATM. He spent billions in oil revenues to prop up Cuba, stockpile arms from Russia and buy friends in North Korea, Iran and China. He confiscated property, nationalized key industries and drove out foreign investors. His revolution promised food, education and health care for the poor but led to high unemployment, record inflation and rampant crime.
All of this was made worse by the wanton spending he engaged in to get re-elected. Too sick to give speeches, he bought votes through political stunts like awarding a free government-built home to his 3 millionth Twitter follower.
Venezuela after Chavez will likely be plagued by political turmoil and economic struggle. It's not the legacy he envisioned. But it's his doing.
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