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Venezuela: Who's in Control?

Just who, exactly, is in charge of Venezuela right now? That was the question posed to me late last night by al-Jazeera [the video, apparently, is unavailable online]. It's a perfectly reasonable question, though few seem to have much of a sense of what is happening behind the scenes. The issue has recently come to a head due to President Chavez's longstanding illness and inability to attend his own inauguration. The Venezuelan Supreme Court, meanwhile, has stated that Chavez may postpone the inauguration to a future date, though the opposition has cried foul.

The confusion has led some Venezuelans to wonder who might actually be in control. Officially speaking, Vice President Nicolas Maduro is now the de facto leader of the country, and would probably run as Chavez's official candidate in the event of new elections. Believe it or not, however, the Venezuelan constitution is subject to some interpretation in the event of problematic presidential successions. Some experts say the inauguration can be postponed, while others claim that Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello must declare a caretaker government and then call for new elections.

Whatever the case, uncertainty over the succession could cause major disruptions to the Venezuelan political system. As I remarked to al-Jazeera, the longer this crisis plays out the greater the chances for instability and unrest, similar to the 2002-2004 period when the opposition launched strikes and other destabilization in an effort to topple Chavez from power. Also unknown is the future political role of the military: presumably Chavez still commands a lot of influence over the armed forces though the succession crisis could give rise to division within the ranks.

What might be the role of the U.S. in this unfolding drama? During my interview, I suggested that Obama might pursue a cautious course for the time being, careful to avoid the impression of choosing sides. When the Bush administration blatantly allied itself with the right wing opposition in 2002, and Chavez defeated a short-lived coup, Washington was completely humiliated. To be sure, Obama may see opportunity in this crisis, but don't expect him to take sides any time soon.

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