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