... on November 27th he left for medical treatment in Havana, returning briefly last weekend with a very different story—one that would seem to presage his imminent retirement from his country’s politics, and perhaps from life itself.The story goes on to note:
“It is absolutely imperative that I undergo surgery in the next few days,” a sombre Mr Chávez said in a broadcast address to the nation late on December 8th. Tests had shown that “malignant cells [had] reappeared” where tumours had twice before been removed. For the first time he spoke of the need to anticipate “any unforeseen circumstance” that might prevent him from continuing as president. In an apparent desire to forestall jockeying for the succession, he named his vice-president and foreign minister as his political heir. “My firm, full—like the moon is full—absolute and total opinion…is that you should elect Nicolás Maduro as president of the republic,” he declared, before swiftly returning to Havana.
Mr Maduro would be the candidate of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV). Under the constitution, the speaker of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a former army lieutenant and a rival of Mr Maduro’s, would take over as interim president. The parliament is due to elect a new speaker in early January, though it seems likely that Mr Cabello will retain the job.
Although Mr Cabello’s association with Mr Chávez goes back to their army days, Mr Maduro this year emerged as the heir-apparent. A former bus driver and trade-union leader, he has been a close ally of the president’s ever since Mr Chávez entered politics after being jailed for leading a failed military coup in 1992. Before becoming foreign minister in 2006, Mr Maduro chaired the National Assembly. He is a physically imposing man with a thick, black moustache. Unlike many in the president’s inner circle, he has an affable manner and is seen as a conciliator. That has led to his being dubbed a “moderate”, though his politics are of the radical left. Crucially, he is known to be favoured by the Cubans, Mr Chávez’s closest allies.
The political impact of these events will be tested on December 16th, when Venezuelans go to the polls again, this time to elect 23 state governors and state legislators. Some analysts believe the news will boost turnout on both sides of Venezuela’s deep political divide. Supporters of Mr Chávez will be voting for candidates hand-picked by the president. Aides have urged them to send him a morale-boosting message by voting. But the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance is likely to be reinvigorated by the prospect of another shot at the presidency.
Attention will focus on the state of Miranda, which includes much of the capital, Caracas. Its governor, Henrique Capriles, who is standing for re-election, was the opposition’s presidential candidate in October, winning 44% of the vote. If he can win his state, he will be the natural candidate for the MUD in any presidential rerun.