Venezuela prays for the best, braces for the worst

It has been close to four weeks since Hugo Chávez underwent an unexplained surgical procedure for the undisclosed form of cancer he has been suffering from since mid-2011. Since his operation, the president has neither been seen nor heard from. The government has only admitted that the president's condition "is complicated."

That may be the understatement of this young year. Rumors continue to filter out of Havana, where the president is "recovering," but each one is more somber than the next. Whether the president is in a coma or is simply under the weather for a respiratory infection, it appears his cancer is incurable.

For years, Venezuela, which sits atop the world's largest proven reserves of oil, was synonymous with Chávez. The charismatic leader, a darling of the world's left and most of its media, held sway over his nation like few before him. But on the heels of a commanding re-election, the 58-year old seems to have run out of luck.

What comes next? In order to understand Venezuela's transition, one has to focus on three men.

The first is Nicolás Maduro, the current vice president and Chávez's appointed political heir. In a dramatic speech before his surgery, Chávez asked people "from the bottom of his heart" to support Maduro in case he died and new elections had to be held.

The problem for Maduro is that his term as vice president expires January 10th, when the current presidential term ends and a new one begins. Chávez, who is also president-elect, may not be healthy enough to be sworn in and appoint him vice president again. If that doesn't happen, Maduro will be out of a job, even though he would remain the ruling party candidate in any follow-up election.

Who, then, will run Venezuela after January 10th? The second man to watch is Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly (Venezuela's parliament), a close ally of Chávez and, in contrast to the relative newcomer Maduro, a longtime comrade-in-arms of the Comandante. Cabello was one of several military leaders in the 1992 coup that catapulted Chávez to fame, and he holds significant sway over the armed forces, the Parliament, and many of the economic elites that have benefitted from Hugo Chávez's strange form of socialism.

The Venezuelan constitution is not exactly clear about what happens when a president-elect cannot be sworn in due to a temporary "inconvenience." However, according to constitutional lawyer José Ignacio Hernández, the only reasonable solution is for the president of the National Assembly to hold office until either the president-elect is strong enough to be sworn in or, in case of his death, a successor is elected.

By parsing the public statements from chavistas, it's clear the absolute absence of the President will not be declared until Chávez actually dies. In the meantime, and assuming Chávez fails to take office, Cabello will rule. (There is a small chance that the National Assembly will replace Cabello with someone else, but that is unlikely).

If Chávez dies, the constitution clearly mandates a new election be held within 30 days of his death. What will happen then? The third man to watch is Miranda governor (and defeated presidential candidate) Henrique Capriles.

Venezuela's opposition has demanded more information, and insists the government must follow the constitution. In spite of a few rumblings from its more radical wing, the consensus on Capriles as unity candidate seems to be solidifying. There is simply nobody else in the opposition with the necessary name recognition to mount a serious challenge to Maduro in such short notice.

Who will win? Much will depend on the timing. If months go by, Venezuela's economic situation could deteriorate, making Maduro's odds longer.

Maduro has none of the charisma for which his boss is famous, nor does he command the same sort of religious fervor that Chávez inspires in the electorate. In recent gubernatorial elections, chavista forces won, but they lost roughly three million votes in the process (though the opposition lost votes as well, it should be noted). Polls taken some six months ago showed Capriles comfortably defeating Maduro in an election, although the pollsters did not, of course, take into account the intense sense of loss that many chavistas will feel if the president passes away.

Underlying all this uncertainty is the possibility of a deeply ironic ending to Hugo Chávez's chaotic, larger-than-life rule. In the most likely scenario, Hugo Chávez will die far away from his native land, in his adopted homeland of Cuba. It is very possible he will never be heard from or seen again.

A quiet, tragic exit for a man who did everything with a bang.

Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images


A victory for Christmas in Indonesia

The drizzle didn't spoil the street party in Jakarta that ushered in the New Year. About 200,000 people converged in the main square of the Indonesian capital on New Year's Eve to party and watch the fireworks light up the sky above the city's skyscrapers. If the shamans had done a better job repelling the rain, the turnout could have reached the 700,000 that Jakarta governor Joko Widodo had hoped would turn out. 

For more than three decades, street parties were banned in Jakarta for security reasons. During the height of the rule of the dictator Suharto in the 1970s, any assembly of more than five people was deemed a security threat and required a police permit. While street parties were not officially banned, they were discouraged. As a sign of new confidence, Jakarta and other cities decided this year to welcome the New Year with street fiestas. Police were out in full force, but largely to deal with traffic, not disturbances. The mood in the streets was one of joy, despite the wetness.

Like much of the rest of world, the New Year celebrations capped the week-long holiday season that started with Christmas. Indonesia may be the country with the world's largest Muslim population, but Christmas is celebrated, if not at least marked, regardless of people's faith, because the two public holidays are so close together and also coincide with the schools' holiday break.

But not everyone is on board, including the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a staunchly Islamic conservative outfit that declares that Muslims should not join in any of the Christmas celebrations. In fact, it has even told its followers to avoid saying "Merry Christmas" to Christian friends.

An MUI fatwa (religious edict) issued a few days before December 25 said that extending Christmas greetings amounts to affirming Christian belief, and, specifically, to confirming that Jesus is the son of God. This contravenes the Islamic teaching that says that God does not beget a child, and instead views Jesus as one of a long-line of God-sent prophets that came before Muhammad.

The claim that giving a Christmas greeting is haram (religiously forbidden) inevitably caused some anxieties among Indonesian Muslims who have Christian friends, colleagues, and neighbors. A heated debate ensued in social media about whether they should abide by the ruling or simply ignore it.

Those who choose to ignore it argued that extending greetings is only courteous, helps build bridges between people of different faiths, and does not affect their own beliefs. Some Muslims heeded the MUI edict. Most Christians are simply bemused by the debate, and pressed ahead with their Christmas celebrations no matter what. This, many seemed to feel, is an issue for Muslims to resolve.

Reactions to the ruling may have been mixed, but one clue that Muslim conservatives are not winning this time around came when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decided to ignore the MUI by attending an annual Christmas celebration jointly hosted by various Christian groups at the Jakarta Convention Center on December 27.

The president, Vice President Budiono, and their wives -- all Muslims -- came to the gathering. As a further indication of where Yudhoyono stands on this debate, his official website carries a "Happy Christmas and New Year" banner. In his speech at the Christmas celebration, he said that Indonesia's different religious communities should uphold the universal principle of loving one another.

Christians are the largest religious minority in Indonesia, making up approximately 8.8 percent, while Muslims officially account for around 88 percent of a population of 240 million. However, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, and religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. Protestantism and Catholicism are among the six officially recognized religions, along with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. All these religions' major religious holidays are national public holidays.

There were concerns that President Yudhoyono would follow the fatwa on extending Christmas greeting, as in the past he sided with most other MUI edicts. The MUI has come out with many controversial fatwas, eager to push its conservative agenda on the rest of the nation. In spite of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, the government at times regarded MUI rulings favorably, as in the case of a fatwa that proclaimed the Ahmadiyah faith of Islam to be a heretical sect. While it has stopped short at outlawing Ahmadiyah, Yudhoyono's government has imposed severe restrictions on this religious group.

Although often referred to as "edicts," MUI fatwas are usually regarded by officials as legal opinions that are not binding on the government or on the people. It is left to every party's own discretion to follow or not. This explains why MUI has come out with many ridiculous fatwas -- including bans on yoga, permanent hair straightening, and pre-wedding photos -- that also explain why many Muslims decide to ignore them. Going by the reactions of people and government officials, the ban on Christmas greetings must count amongst MUI's most silly edicts.

At any rate, it's hard, if not impossible, for Indonesia's religious conservatives to prevent Muslims from taking part in Christmas celebrations, even if passively. Since December 25 is a national holiday, a festive mood sets in by default (compounded by the fact that the government has also declared Monday, December 24, as a day off in order to grant people a long and extended weekend holiday). Even if they don't celebrate Christmas, the benefits of the long holiday are enjoyed by all. With public schools also closed until after New Year's, for some people this week also means a holiday with the whole family.

And then there's the commercial aspect. Most department stores in Jakarta have caught up with the festive mood by putting up Christmas decorations and having Christmas sales, just as they do during celebrations for the Muslim Eid holiday and the Confucian Chinese New Year.

In Indonesia's version of the culture wars, this time the liberals have prevailed over the religious conservatives.

Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/Getty Images