JAVIER CORRALES is professor of political science at Amherst College. He is the co-author (with Carlos A. Romero) of U.S.-Venezuelan Relations Since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats (Routledge, 2013).
A mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Courtesy Reuters)
These days, the Venezuelan government is busy preparing for the re-inauguration of the country's beloved president, Hugo Chávez, and also for his funeral. Chávez, who has been in office for 14 years, was re-elected for a third time in October 2012. He is scheduled to take the oath of office once more on January 10. But Chávez has been sick with an undisclosed form of cancer since at least 2011 and, after months of press releases that said he was getting better by the day, the government announced on December 30 that new complications had emerged during the leader's fourth surgery in Havana. Chávez, still in Cuba and presumably still alive, might not make it back for his swearing-in ceremony.
Venezuela's constitution offers some guidance on what to do. If the president dies, the vice president (in this case, Nicolás Maduro, an avowed communist) will take office. He will call a new election within 30 days. If Chávez survives but cannot attend the inauguration, most jurists agree that the president of the National Assembly (Diosdado Cabello, who will presumably be reelected to that post in a vote on January 5) will take power. If the government then rules that the president-elect is only "temporarily absent," Cabello will govern for 90 days, which will be renewable for 90 more. If it instead declares the president-elect to be "permanently absent," Cabello would be constitutionally obligated to call an early election.
The government seems to be at a loss. It is organizing church services, making somber announcements, and readying the country for the prospect of life without Chávez. But it has also announced that Chávez will certainly be re-inaugurated soon, come what may. Cabello has promised that the government will think of something -- maybe swear Chávez in some other day, or in absentia. It has even hinted at the possibility of flying the Supreme Court to Cuba to swear