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Week in Review: A New Venezuelan Leader, but is he a Legitimate Successor?

March 13, 2013

Kara VanBlargan, ‘15

The world was struck on March 5th by the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been fighting cancer for two years. Before his death, Chavez named vice president Nicolas Maduro as successor, yet that appointment is in direct violation of the Venezuelan constitution.

Chavez’s health problems prevented him from being sworn in after his re-election in late 2012, as he underwent surgery in Cuba instead. Chavez’s health quickly deteriorated after the procedure and the President became too ill to be sworn into office. The constitution states that in the event that the president-elect dies before being sworn in, the National Assembly speaker becomes the interim president.

Therefore, according to the Venezuelan constitution, Maduro’s appointment is illegitimate. Yet Maduro continues to act as interim president while Henrique Capriles leads a mounting opposition. Capriles ran against Chavez in the 2012 elections and now leads the opposition.

An NBC report states that Maduro is a “former bus driver and union leader who now leads the Chavista movement. This week, Maduro blamed ‘enemy countries’ for Chavez’s cancer.” With outlandish claims like this, it’s no surprise that Maduro has called for an election within the next 30 days. The interim president plans to continue Chavez’s socialist politics if he wins the upcoming election, a claim that does not sit well with the United States.

News of Chavez’s passing initially brought hope for improving U.S. relations with Venezuela, but has faded as leaders like Maduro suggest that the United States played a role in the Chavez’s untimely death; Maduro also expelled two U.S diplomats, accusing them of conspiring to destabilize the Venezuelan government. U.S.-Venezuela relations have been rocky for over a decade, corresponding with Chavez’s 14 years in office. Chavez spent most of his time in office spewing anti-American sentiments, leading most Venezuelans to see the U.S. as an enemy. A decade of hate for Americans will not quickly subside and it could take decades more to improve relations between the countries.

Disagreements between the countries have primarily revolved around narcotics trafficking, counter-terrorism,  energy, and Cuba. Venezuela has refused to aid the United States in counternarcotics, by resisting U.S. plans to stop narcotics trafficking in nearby Colombia. Allegedly, Chavez also helped guerrilla forces in neighboring countries. Chavez also sold oil to Cuba, a longtime adversary of the United States and refused to cut ties with the nation. In another controversial move, the Venezuelan leader threatened to stop supplying the U.S. with oil. This threat arose in response to Chavez’s belief that the U.S. was responsible for a failed coup in 2002. Most of Chavez’s hostility toward the U.S. arose from that 2002 coup attempt and his conspiracy theory that the CIA attempted to assassinate him. While the U.S denied involvement in the events, Chavez fueled his anti-American campaign with eccentric theories. Chavez was also an outspoken opponent of President George W. Bush, calling him an “evil imperialist.” The former president also vehemently opposed the War on Terror, claiming that the United States had abused its powers by initiating military action in Afghanistan.

Chavez was an outspoken leader, frequently insulting oil executives, church officials and his fellow world leaders throughout his time in office. Although controversial, he was hailed as a beloved hero by his people. The new president will inherit a decade of turmoil with the U.S. and will be have the unique opportunity to renew relations with countries all over the world. Regardless of who ultimately becomes the new leader, Chavez’s death marks a shift in U.S. relations with Venezuela. Unfortunately, whether that change will be good or bad is yet to be determined.

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