Deathwatch for dictator a timebomb in Venezuela

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CARACAS — Venezuela’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party: PSUV) has, since mid-December 2012, been working on devising a plan to initiate President-elect Hugo Chávez Frias’ new term in office without the president necessarily being physically able to govern.

A mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas. /AFP/Getty Images

By the beginning of January 2013, there was a growing sense of certainty that Chávez would not serve his new term in the presidency. Worse, he seemed unlikely to even be able to be present for his formal inauguration on Jan. 10, a situation which could — absent some legal legerdemain — mean that Venezuela would have to go back to the polls to elect a new president.

Absent any form of internationally- and domestically-acceptable legal framework to address this unprecedented situation, the military might find itself impelled to intervene.

Alternately, before the actual date of the formal inauguration, and before any announcement of the death of Chávez, the possibility exists for the formal declaration, in Chávez’ name, of a State of Emergency or Martial Law which could impose an interim administration for Venezuela.

By Dec. 11, 2012, the President’s cancer had re-emerged sufficiently for him to have to undergo further surgery in Cuba, and, after that, the government was silent on Chávez’ condition. This began to raise speculation that Chávez’ health might be deteriorating dramatically, and that he might not even be in sufficient health to participate in the planned Jan. 10, inauguration of his new term.

On the evening of Jan. 3, as a result, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said: “Commandante Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commandante Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment.”

There have been no recent, independent sightings of Chávez in Cuba, but medical sources indicated that the president appeared — if the symptoms described by government officials were correct — to have suffered from severe pneumonia following respiratory failure, as a result of the cancer surgery, and that his condition appeared grave, and with the possibility that Chávez was on mechanical ventilation.

Thus the question was being publicly raised as to whether the inauguration could be postponed and whether, if the president — as president-elect — was not medically fit, or deceased, when he was due to be sworn-in, the nominee for Vice-President, Foreign Minister Nicolas Madura, could be sworn into office as the new president, bearing in mind that he had not been elected as part of Chávez’ electoral ticket.

That, then, raised the prospect of either new elections or a military or legal intervention to manage the transition.

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