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The continuing presidential soap opera in Venezuela

Venezuela: The land of soap operas, those weepy TV series that have been permeating Latin American broadcasting for years. And yet no TV studio has ever produced anything that can match the current political, social, and medical drama unfolding in both Caracas and Havana.

Last Saturday, Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela from his latest stay in Cuba, looking healthy. But a few hours after landing, he shocked the nation by announcing that he will be going back to Havana for yet another cancer-related operation -- and that if something were to happen to him, the government must follow the constitution and hold elections. He concluded by imploring the people, "from the bottom of [his] heart," to vote for his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro (pictured above with President Obama).

It was the first time Chávez explicitly endorsed Maduro as his successor.

The president's followers are in disbelief. The next morning, thousands of people streamed into public squares and churches, holding prayer vigils and vowing to defend their beloved comandante presidente until the end.

The reaction in chavista op-ed pages has been more varied. One commentator in the widely-read pro-Chávez forum Aporrea criticized the selection of Maduro, claiming the vice-president is not radical enough and is a lover of the bourgeois lifestyle. Another called for taking Chávez's absence as an opportunity for further debate within chavista structures. The very same forum showed that chavistas are split, with some criticizing that Maduro is unpopular with the base supporters, while others argued that the will of the President should be respected and trusted in this emergency. One prominent academic close to the chavista movement acknowledged that nobody could match Chavez's unique leadership qualities, but that the faithful should cast doubts aside and assume the choice of Maduro as legitimate.

The wild card, of course, is the military. Although they recently (and alarmingly) pledged personal loyalty to Chávez and the Revolution in a press release, there was no mention in it of Maduro. How Maduro, a civilian, can navigate these waters remains an open question. His main rival within chavismo, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, is widely believed to have strong ties with the military, although some analysts believe the importance of these are over-estimated. They claim people make too much of Cabello's personal friendships with elements in the Armed Forces (Cabello met Chávez when both were active in the Armed Forces), all the while stressing that the military and civilian wings of chavismo work in lockstep.

For oppositionists, the choice of Maduro was widely expected. They see him as the strongest candidate in the weak field of Chávez substitutes. The constitution mandates a new election be called immediately after the death of the President, and the compressed schedule will likely mean a harshly negative campaign in which they will try to portray the vice-president in the worst possible light. However, if we judge by recent elections, any opposition candidate will have difficulties finding enough resources and air time to spread his or her message in a compressed election schedule. Chávez or no Chávez, the institutional advantages any chavista candidate enjoys remain intact. 

If they want to go negative, they won't have to strain themselves looking for research material. Rumors about Maduro's heavy-handedness -- namely interfering in sovereign nations' affairs -- and the alleged shady dealings of his partner Cilia Flores within the National Assembly are well documented. Maduro has been the visible figurehead of some of Hugo Chávez's most cringe-inducing foreign liaisons. He has traveled numerous times to Iran, supported Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and has been instrumental in Venezuela's strange infatuation with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

But in the meantime, the opposition is showing restraint. They do not want to further divert attention from this Sunday's gubernatorial elections, in which many of their key players face tough fights against chavista candidates. Moreover, it would be callous for them to plan ahead while the President is still ailing.

But once the elections are passed, however, key opposition players will begin outlining their strategies. As soon as the voting is over, we should expect the likely candidates to begin convincing the opposition world that they can take on Maduro, and more importantly, play him tough.

While Chávez is now off limits due to his health, after this Sunday it will be a whole new ball game, and the opposition seems eager to fight. Maduro will have to simultaneously fend off doubts from chavistas and swipe away the opposition. With the ailing President absent from the airwaves and thus unable to support him, Maduro will be in the unusual position of having the center stage all to himself.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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