Joel Hirst: Hugo Chavez’s Christmas Offensive

Since declaring himself cured of cancer, an assertion that some analysts have disputed, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has begun a cycle of extraordinary activity.  The last month has seen him jogging, rapping and playing baseball.  He has increased his presence in the media through “chains” – where he is allowed by law to take over the radio and television airwaves to broadcast messages loosely defined as in the national interest.  And at the beginning of December he hosted the delegations from thirty-three nations for the inaugural summit of the new Community of Latin American Nations (CELAC for its acronym in Spanish).

Internationally, President Chávez has returned to his familiar antics.  Upon learning of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Ill he sent his condolences and mourned the loss of his “comrade.”  When President Barack Obama expressed concern for Venezuela’s human rights situation and its relationship with Iran and Cuba, Chávez called him a “clown” and a “fraud”.  He then went further, speculating that President Obama would lose his bid for re-election; stating that if he, Chávez, were running for president in the United States, he would win by 80%.  For those who followed Venezuelan politics during the Bush Administration, these antics, accusations and assertions are very familiar.

He has also been very active domestically.  On the anniversary of the death of independence hero Simon Bolivar he unveiled a new casket decorated with gold and diamonds; and announced a new $27 million mausoleum for the liberator.  During a guest appearance on a talk show on VTV, Venezuela’s principal state-run TV station, he announced a surprising cabinet shakeup.  In this newest maneuver his four senior most officials were banished: Vice President Elias Jaua would run for governor of Miranda State; Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro would run for governor of Carabobo State; Defense Minister Carlos Matas Figueroa would run for governor of the Island of Margarita; and Interior Minister Tarek Al Aissami would run for governor of Tachira State in the gubernatorial and mayoral elections to take place two months after the presidential.

All this speaks to election year politics.  Chávez is a masterful politician and an excellent campaigner.  With this activity, he is attempting to convince the electorate that he has indeed defeated his illness and is ready to govern until 2021 – as he has repeated consistently.  He is also demonstrating that he is fully in control of his government.  According to analysts, President Chávez is betting his re-election on a three-fold strategy.

First, he aims to present himself as having defeated his disease.  Recent polls indicate Venezuelans would be less willing to vote for President Chávez if they believe he continues to suffer from cancer.  In attempting to convince his constituents of his renewed health, he is also setting himself up in contrast to Simon Bolivar who died at an early age – unable to complete his political project.  In this way, Chávez as the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar was divinely healed to continue to govern.

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Second, Chávez plans to continue the tried and true pattern of using state resources to buy votes.  By announcing two new social “missions”; a housing mission seeking to build over two million homes and one called, “Children of Venezuela” which distributes welfare checks to poor households with children (among others), Chávez is able to again make the case that voting against him would cost the poor economically.

Finally, the polemic Venezuelan leader will attempt to brand his opposition as irrelevant and incompetent and beholden to a foreign power.  For this reason, in the same interview mentioned above Chávez lamented that he did not have a worthy opponent, saying all his challengers were doing, “acrobatics” to get to Miraflores (the presidential palace) and urged them to, “…give up, because you are surrounded,” calling them, “laughable – if nobody else will tell you, I will.”

The most surprising move, and one that caught most analysts off guard, is the replacement of Nicolas Maduro, the Foreign Minister.  He was touted by many as the replacement for Chávez should the latter die of cancer before the elections.  He was also one of President Chavez’s most loyal and effective officers.  The reason for his ouster, nevertheless, appears simple; a famously paranoid Venezuelan president could have felt threatened by the increasing prominence and international projection of his foreign minister.

With all this, Chávez has made his own re-election more difficult.  There are still serious doubts about his illness; which could be exacerbated by his punishing campaign schedule.  The absence of important companions like Maduro, Jaua and Al Aissami will be felt.  Since these are the primary interlocutors between Iran, Hezbollah, and even Cuba, it is unclear how Chávez will manage these delicate relationships in the future.  Maduro especially has nurtured a large cadre of international contacts which Chávez will need, especially if the election goes poorly.

All this aside, President Chávez appears to be caught in a trap of his own design.  Ensnared by his paranoia, he has fallen back on old tricks.  This time, he appears to be going into his most challenging electoral event ill, and increasingly alone.

Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  He tweets at

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