For two long years, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’s Cuban medical team perpetrated a colossal deception of the Venezuelan people and the world about his bout with terminal cancer. According to knowledgeable sources, Cuban doctors botched the initial treatment that doomed Chavez, manipulated his anxiety and paranoia so he would settle for substandard medical care in Havana, and pushed him back on to the campaign trail despite the impact on his health.
Quite plainly, the Cuban regime traded Chávez’s life for its own survival – knowing that its bankrupt economy depends on Venezuelan generosity. Unfortunately, the Cubans are not done administering to Venezuela – putting that country’s constitution under the knife.
Article 233 of that charter says, in part, “When an elected president becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days. Pending election and inauguration of the new president, the president of the National Assembly shall take charge of the presidency of the Republic.” [Emphasis added]
Today, Chávez is as “permanently unavailable to serve” as president of Venezuela as anyone can be. He was out of the country and unable to take the oath of office on Jan. 10, when his new term should have commenced; the cronies on his supreme court pushed back his inauguration to a time convenient to the president. So, he was never inaugurated and never will be. A plain reading of Article 233 makes National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello the custodian of the presidency until new elections can be held. But Havana does not like Cabello, and the feeling is mutual.
Havana favors Nicolas Maduro, whom Chávez named late last year as vice president. If Chávez had taken the oath of office and initiated his new term, Maduro might have some claim to succession. However, Chávez’s term was never inaugurated, so there is no mandate for Maduro to claim. Indeed, the moment Chávez died, Maduro became no one’s vice president.
The Cubans have no choice but to run the risk of awakening Venezuelan nationalism. Not only did they essentially sequester another country’s president for the last 90 days, they even summoned Venezuelan ministers to Havana to hold imaginary cabinet meetings. In recent weeks, university students have protested Cuban interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Nationalistic military officers – most of whom favor the veteran Cabello and were trained to oppose Cuban communism – have grumbled about Havana’s heavy-handed stage-managing of a succession that favors Havana’s selfish interests.
According to sources in Venezuela, the country’s security forces are divided – with most of the military muscle lining up behind Cabello. However, with 30,000 Cubans – including disciplined mobile hit squads – roaming the streets and monitoring the movements of every Venezuelan military officer, Havana will put up a fight. If that sparks a civil war in which thousands of Venezuelans might die, so be it.
After years of ignoring Chávez’s authoritarianism, the international community might finally muster the courage to speak up to prevent bloodshed. The solution appears to be fairly straightforward: a constitutional succession and new elections to choose a president.
If Maduro wants to be president and defender of the Venezuelan Constitution, he can play by the rules and compete for the job. Of course, before the democratic opposition hits the campaign trail yet again, they are insisting on simple but profound reforms to ensure a level playing field and a fair process in which all the votes are counted. These concepts might be alien to a bunch of thugs from Cuba, but Venezuelans have gotten fairly used to elections of one sort or another.
If Havana gets its way on interpreting the Venezuelan Constitution in a manner that hands power to its puppet, who can object when Cuba vetoes new elections? And if new elections are held, does anyone expect the Castro brothers to risk holding a freer or fairer process?
In recent months, the U.S. State Department has found itself in the awkward position of favoring Havana’s hand-picked candidate, holding secret talks with Maduro beginning last November aimed at normalizing bilateral relations. Yesterday, Maduro rewarded the naïveté of U.S. diplomats by expelling two military officers assigned to the U.S. Embassy for allegedly destabilizing Venezuela; he also suggested that Chávez might have been poisoned.
As of this morning, it is not too late for Washington to be as effective as Havana when it comes to defending our values and interests. By this afternoon, the Cubans’ coup de grâce against Venezuela’s constitution may be irreversible.
Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization ofAmerican States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and contributes to www.interamericansecuritywatch.com.