Too Sick to Govern

Hugo Chavez Battles Cancer and the Venezuelan Constitution

By Marcela Colmenares


The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has been in Cuba for a month, potentially on his deathbed. Only Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his closest friends and family have been able to speak to him. Other countries may be able to function under these conditions, but Venezuela in particular relies on the presence of its executive. Since 1999 Chavez has been the one and only leader of his socialist-Bolivarian revolution. Big or small, few decisions can be made without Chavez’s approval. Moreover, the Venezuelan people have become accustomed to Chavez maintaining an overwhelming media presence; the leader holds the record for one of the longest speeches ever given, which lasted eight hours. Chavez, like many populist and charismatic leaders, has created a revolution, and government, that revolve around him.

Despite his awareness of the deadly disease that threatens his life, Hugo Chavez won re-election in October. In what has probably been the wisest decision made by Chavez in recent memory, he used his last speech before he left for Cuba to designate Vice President Maduro as the revolution’s leader in case he was no longer able to govern. In doing so, he avoided an intense struggle for leadership within his own party. In spite of his disease, reportedly cancer, the president was supposed to return to Venezuela on January 10th for his swearing in. January 10th has come and gone, and the Venezuelan people have not even received a picture of their president. Uncertainty and rumors rule the country and the media.

Chavez’s failure to attend his swearing in has provoked an intense debate over the interpretation of two articles of the Venezuelan constitution.

Article 231: The president elect will assume the office of President of the Republic the 10th of January in the first year of his constitutional period, by swearing before the National Assembly. If by any unexpected reason the President of the Republic could not assume office before the National Assembly, he will do it before the Supreme Court of Justice.

Article 233: There will be an absolute presidential absence in case of: death, resignation, a dismissal decreed by judgment of the Supreme Court of Justice, or the President’s permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Court of Justice and with approval of the National Assembly…When the absolute absence of the President elect happens before assuming office, a new universal, direct and secret suffrage will proceed, within the following consecutive thirty days. While the election and the swearing in of the new President takes place, the National Assembly President will take charge of the Presidency of the Republic…

Many of Chavez’s opponents argue that he should be temporarily replaced by Diosdado Cabello, the unicameral National Assembly president and former military man, and that a medical board should study Chavez’s case and determine if he will actually be available to fulfill his duties. They argue that just because Article 231 allows the president to be sworn in at an alternate location (the Supreme Court of Justice) does not mean that they can be inaugurated on an alternate day.

Pro-Chavez government officials and the majority of the National Assembly, on the other hand, have declared that Chavez’s swearing in will be postponed until whenever the president is in condition to come back, and that he will be sworn in before the SCJ. Moreover, the SCJ has declared that a medical board is out of order because there is no reason for it to believe that the president is “incapacitated,” since on December 8th he formally requested permission for a temporary absence in order to undergo treatment in Cuba.

The SCJ’s decision has sparked a heated debate over whether or not their actions were constitutional. The debate hinges on the definition of permanent absence. While the opposition believes that Chavez’s disease has disabled him permanently, the SCJ and the majority of the “red” National Assembly consider it a temporary absence, which, according to Article 234, could be prolonged to ninety consecutive days. On the top of that, after those ninety days the majority of the National Assembly has the authority to extend the temporary absence for another ninety days. Finally, the SCJ has gone to great lengths to shield the public from information concerning Chavez’s health, presenting him as an ordinary citizen whose private life should be kept private.

The government’s actions have turned a medical issue into a partisan issue, as the vast majority of the National Assembly supports Chavez and the SCJ is not an independent body. As was the case when Chavez introduced permanent presidential reelection via two consecutive referendums, Venezuela’s constitution and broken institutions have stood in the way of common sense and good governance. Under present circumstances, Chavez could theoretically remain in power without being inaugurated for months on end without having to explain himself to the Venezuelan people. This is irresponsible and unacceptable. The president is too sick to face the Venezuelan people; the people should demand that he undergo a medical review to determine if he is fit to govern. In a country that is both dominated by the ruling majority and burdened by a constitution that does not provide decent checks and balances or guarantees for the rights of opposing groups, this is unlikely to happen.

The SCJ’s failure to create a medical board is unacceptable for a variety of reasons. First, whether he likes it or not, Chavez is a public figure who does not enjoy the same right to privacy that ordinary citizens do. Second, Chavez has a long history of temporary absences associated with this illness; how many temporary absences have to meld together before they become one whole permanent absence? In the last sixteen months, Chavez has been forced to take at least five temporary absences in order to undergo treatment in Cuba. Finally, apart from Chavez’s testimonies, there is no way of confirming his actual medical condition; not a single medical report has been released to the government from the Cuban team that is treating the president. For all these reasons, the rejection by the SCJ of a medical board is unacceptable.

But lately, Venezuelan anger has failed to translate into action. The Venezuelan opposition has grown far too accustomed to this kind of nonsense; instead of making the public squares tremble with their rage, Venezuelans have sat idly by, content to tweet their grievances. The Venezuelan people owe it to themselves to demand a sensible solution to Chavez’s clear inability to govern.

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