By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database
All sorts of rumours have been circulating in Venezuela about the health of Hugo Chavez, ahead of the president’s anticipated return to Caracas and the campaign trail this weekend. After 13 years in power, Chavez is fighting hard not only against cancer – he is coming back home after a second operation in Cuba – but also against a resurgent opposition. His adversaries made important strides in last year’s parliamentary elections. Now, after years of infighting, the opposition has united around one candidate, the youthful Henrique Capriles. The moderate, centre-left Capriles may not win the presidential election scheduled for October, but it is expected to be the tightest contest in Venezuela for years.
While the president’s allies have used smear tactics to try to discredit Capriles, Chavez himself has responded by increasingly surrounding himself with figures from the military, where he began his career.
Chavez has moved to sideline the most popular civilian figures in his administration who might be able to challenge him. Among these was Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, whom the Venezuelan media tipped as a potential successor.
Instead, Chavez recently chose as his defence minister the controversial General Henry Rangel Silva, who is on a US government blacklist for his alleged support of Colombian FARC rebels. Not all in the Venezuelan military are hardline supporters of Chavez’s socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution‘, but the new defence minister seems willing to go to great lengths to support his old army buddy. The military was ‘married’ to Chavez’s political project, Rangel said in 2010, leading to speculation that he might try to overturn any opposition victory.
Another Chavez appointment from the barracks has been Diosdado Cabello, a former vice-president and occasional member of Chavez’s inner circle. Last December, Cabello became first vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and a few weeks later the president of the National Assembly. Both Rangel and Cabello were involved in the coup attempt against President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992 that brought Chavez to prominence. Just on Wednesday the governor of Monagas state, Jose Gregorio Briceno, was suspended from office for criticising Cabello.
An extra pillar of presidential support comes from the 125,000 loyal civilians armed and integrated into pro-Chavez militias. The Bolivarian National Militia (MNB) is formed entirely of registered members of the PSUV and has the same legal status as the other branches of the military.
Before flying to Cuba for further treatment this year, Chavez announced plans to create the first militia tank battalions. A video posted earlier on YouTube with a Venezuelan state TV symbol appears to show militia members carrying Russian-made IGLA-S surface-to-air missiles in Caracas neighbourhoods. According to a Venezuelan news website, there are weapons caches and missiles hidden in different ‘popular’ neighbourhoods.
The return of Chavez’s cancer – and the secrecy surrounding its exact nature and stage – has created an atmosphere of uncertainty in Venezuela. This is only increased by the presence of these militias. Their growth has already increased the availability of guns and caused growing anxiety over violence in the streets. Venezuela’s homicide rate hit a record 67 per 100,000 inhabitants last year. There are fears the militias could make matters worse if the ‘revolution’ is judged to be in danger.
Chavez has announced popular measures in an effort to keep the Venezuelan population onside, such as a new child-benefit programme for the poor. He has kept up appearances by hosting the inaugural session of a new regional bloc, the 33-strong Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, and giving a nine-hour speech to the National Assembly. In fact, however, images of Chavez as a tracksuited Cuban patient have given him a ‘sympathy bounce’ in opinion polls.
Opposition leader Capriles, who says he admires recent moderate-left governments in Brazil, may try to win over more middle-of-the-road Chavistas. He has wished Chavez a speedy recovery. Others in the opposition, however, note that the president’s personal suffering has not always been a political liability.