Perhaps, Venezuelans are bracing for a change of leader. A government statement on Thursday said that President Hugo Chavez, who has undergone surgery at a Cuban hospital, was facing “complications” from “a severe lung infection.” The announcement comes at a critical moment. He is due to be sworn in for another six-year term in office after winning reelection in October. At the time of campaigning, he reassured his people that he was fully cured, and healthy enough to lead them with another term in office. But the president disappeared from the public stage and at his last appearance before departing for Cuba, he appointed foreign minister Nicolas Maduro as his vice president and political successor. If Chavez is too ill to attend his inauguration, which is likely, they the swearing-in is likely to be delayed.
Chavez has been ruling Venezuela for 13 years and his latest reelection, despite health concerns, shows his popularity among his people. But a strong country needs a strong leader. Even if Chavez returns, health issues will continue to haunt him and are likely to sap his enthusiasm. It’s time for him to decide about his future. He will be justified if he chooses to wait, to see if he can recover fully. But there is a need to put a deadline on the period he can wait. An indefinite waiting is not good for the country and can affect the economic growth and create problems. Otherwise, the president can choose to retire and order new elections. When he recovers fully, there is the option of coming back to power and Venezuelans will be only happy to welcome him.
But whoever succeeds Chavez will face a difficult economic situation. To win reelection, Chavez has spent hugely, increasing the budget deficit to 20 percent of gross domestic product. His successor will be forced to order a sharp and painful devaluation of the curreny. That will only worsen already high inflation and shortages of foods. Venezuelans will have to support the new leader’s reforms, but the situation is not beyond control.
If an election is held again, the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the October presidential ballot, will try to gain control. Capriles is very popular and if he contents an election in which Chavez is not there, there are chances the public might give him a chance.
Chavez is one of the most powerful leaders in the Americas and his absence will lead a void which is difficult to fill. But history has a habit of throwing up great leaders and filling the vacuum.